Top 10 Tactical RPGs
14 October 2009

This started as a list of "strategy" games, when I was entertaining unrealistic hopes that the strategy genre—whatever the hell that is—could somehow be contained into just one top 10. Colleagues in the forum, however, brought me to my senses. Now things are a little more focused, and the broad offerings of all things strategic will be better represented. Of course, I'll have to put in more hours playing games and ultimately create multiple top 10s devoted to strategy titles, but that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make—emphasis on the former.

So what I bring to you today is the first incarnation of this list. Question marks remain. Energy Breaker (SNES) looks awesome but is due to receive an essential English translation. Some amazing tactical RPGs in Chinese were developed for the Mega Drive, but I'll need more time to struggle through the foreign text. The more I play Ogre Battle, the better it gets. Maybe it will steal slot #1 at some point.

Finally, I want to highlight a few trends in this list. This era covers the inception of the tactical RPG genre, starting with Fire Emblem: Ankoku Ryu to Hikari no Tsurugi. It also represents a historical high point for this style of game—just look at the top 10! Each title carves out its own, unique identity, yet they're all brilliant examples of game design. Ranking one over the other is extremely difficult. In case you haven't noticed, this genre also used to be very Japanese; eight of the top ten titles were never released outside of Japan! Let's all give a cheer for the incredible fan translations that have helped these under-marketed games expand far beyond their local market.
Bahamut Lagoon
Platform: Super Famicom
Developer: Square
Publisher: Square
Released: 1996
This is testament to how great Square used to be. The depth to gameplay apparently knows no end. You've got a general/soldier approach like in Langrisser and Just Breed, but each general also commands a dragon. The dragons are characters unto, themselves, with personalities and develop stats and behaviors based on how you raise them. Moreover, the members of each general's soldiers can be customized (i.e. focus on magic attacks instead of swashbuckling). This phenomenal depth, alone, would make for a top-notch game, but you also find the brilliantly rich graphics and sonorous music for which Square has become famous across many games.
Langrisser II (a.k.a. Der Langrisser)
Platform: Sega Mega Drive, Super Famicom, Virtual Console
Developer: NCS
Publisher: NCS
Released: 1994, 1995 (Super Faimcom)
In terms of pure, elegant combat and tactics, it doesn't get better than this. The general/soldier approach to combat is simple, yet enriches every battle. The depth of combat is remarkable—hiring troops, buying equipment for generals, using magic spells, taking advantage of terrain—but even more impressive is how quickly you can move through all of these gameplay aspects. Throughout all of this there's a solid story that never delays the adrenaline surge of the next battle by too much time.
Just Breed
Platform: Famicom
Developer: Enix
Publisher: Enix
Released: 1992
Released nearly two years after Fire Emblem put the genre on the map, Just Breed transcends Fire Emblem in just about every way possible. Thanks to the expensive MMC5 chip, the graphics break the tile limitations of the normal NES hardware and the music includes two extra sound channels. Towns exist in the full glory of traditional RPGs; you can explore freely, gather clues, and purchase new armor and weapons. Combat takes the squad approach. Each main character leads five allies into battle. Don't get too comfortable with all these troops, though, because some of the most heated battles limit you to just the main characters—no subservient troops. Fortunately, they guys have some pretty powerful magic at their disposal.
Shining Force II
Developer: Sonic! Software Planning
Publisher: Sega, Tec Toy (Brazil)
Released: 1993
Shining Force CD is a good game, but this "more primitive" cartridge-based one is significantly better, because it makes towns significant and rewards exploration outside of battles. In fact, it's even more open-ended than the original Shining Force. You can revisit most areas of the world, and thanks to the plethora of characters there are all sorts of different ways to build the Force. More than probably any other title in this list, Shining Force II does a fantastic job balancing the desire for freedom with the necessary story elements of set battles. From the very first scene, the action and classic RPG elements blend remarkably well.
Ogre Battle
Developer: Imagineer, Quest
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1993
In terms of sheer gameplay depth, Ogre Battle is unrivaled. You have a complex alignment system (preying on weaker enemies can make you more evil while slaying tougher enemies increases your moral standing). The star of the quest (a.k.a. the opinion leader/hero/lord) has four different attacks and accompanying companions—all determined by alignment. There are seven different starting classes, each having its own multi-pronged tree of class progression. The real-time gameplay even incorporates day and night elements, along with the appropriate effects (i.e. Vampires during the day are basically useless). All this and there are tarot cards, too!
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
Developer: Quest
Publisher: Quest
Released: 1995
Look at this game! Does it remind you of a famous tactical RPG released on the Playstation? Well, it should, because three key member of Quest defected to join Square in 1995; it's no wonder that Final Fantasy Tactics appeared two years later and looked remarkably similar. In addition to all that you'd expect from the genre, this game charts its own path by taking alignments (i.e. lawful, neutral, chaotic) into account when it comes time for character classes to advance. There are even some special classes unique to certain characters, but they only become available if the plot takes certain turns.
Fire Emblem: Seisen no Keifu
Developer: Imagineer, Quest
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: 1996
The first SNES Fire Emblem title basically represents an anthology for the first and second NES games, while this title actually begins to tap the 16-bit hardware's potential. All of the landscapes and battlefields are much richer in detail, the soundtrack actually pleasures the ear, and you can even appreciate the sound of cavalry galloping. Gameplay also improves substantially. Horsemen can move after attacking, castles can and need to be defended. There are sensible limits on how many arena battles one unit can fight in a given chapter. It even adds romance as a game mechanic. This raises all sorts of possibilities for teaming up in combat and having children destined to be warriors.
Front Mission
Platform: Super Famicom
Developer: G-Craft
Publisher: Square
Released: 1995
The futuristic science-fiction setting makes this title easily stand out. Consider mech-based combat, for example. Every mech, or wanzer, is modular (body, right arm, left arm, and legs), and each component has its own health bar. The body is the most important part (essential in order to fight at all), but as other sections are disabled a mech loses weapon and evasion capabilities. Naturally, there are all sorts of options for customizing and equipping these mechs. The atmosphere and tone of Front Mission tend to be darker and more mature, too. The lack of colors does make things look a little bland, but you do get the feeling of a bleak and dark future as well.
Treasure Hunter G
Developer: Sting
Publisher: Square
Released: 1996
Here we have a Japan-style RPG that sneaks into a list in which it normally wouldn't belong. Blame the combat, which is all about careful grid-based positioning and attacking. Each character possesses a certain amount of ACT points. Moving depletes them, as well as attacking or using an item. Ideally, you start with an excellent position, so you can slam away at as many enemies in contiguous squares as possible, rather than wasting precious ACT points on movement. You'll be quite pleased with the music in this title, too, developed by seven composers known as the Sting Symphony, it features a whopping 86 songs!
Dark Wizard
Platform: Sega CD
Developer: H.I.C.
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1993
Look beyond the lackluster graphics—you'll want to opt for text only battles rather than cut-scenes comparable to the very first Fire Emblem—you'll find a title that rivals all others with its gameplay depth. Choose one of four totally different protagonists, each with their own storyline, spells, hirelings, and monsters to summon. Each turn takes into account the time of day, which influences units ability to fight. Economics are important, too, and you'll want to capture castles and cities so you can afford more troops. Immense in its complexity.
Honorable Mention
Record of Lodoss War
Platform: Mega CD
Developer: Sega
Publisher: Sega
Released: 1994
This is everything that Shining Force CD should have been: Compelling characters, fantastic cut scenes, a wonderful story that follows the anime classic, and brilliant music to match. Perhaps most impressive of all, I could swear that the battle animations move along faster than those in the Shining Force cartridges. Unlike Shining Force CD, you actually get to use an overhead map and choose destinations, breaking up what could have been a linear series of battles.
Other Recommendations
Intelligent Systems
Fire Emblem: Monshou no Nazo SNES Intelligent Systems Turn-based 1994
Fire Emblem: Thracia 776 SNES Intelligent Systems Turn-based 1999
Intelligent Systems
Hanjuku Hero NES Bits Laboratory Real-time 1988
Langrisser (a.k.a. Warsong) Genesis NCS Turn-based 1991
Langrisser Hikari no Matsuei TG-CD Masaya Turn-based 1993
Shining Force Genesis
Climax, Sonic!
Turn-based 1993
Shining Force CD Sega CD
Sonic! Software Planning
Turn-based 1994