Tuesday Top 5: Best Portable RPGs

Having gotten a really nice response from the Top 5 article I wrote last week, I’ve decided to make them a regular thing to maybe help jack up traffic. I know, it’s shallow and low. Sue me.

To begin this new Tuesday Top 5 trend, I’m going to list off my favorite portable RPGs. To clarify a few things, these are not in any particular order. Nor are they all games that scored especially high or endowed with a lot of renown. Also, to make things a bit more interesting, I’m excluding any ports or remakes. Let the games begin!

5. The Dark Spire (DS)

My first experience with first person dungeon crawlers was with Etrian Odyssey. I liked it but the whole quirky anime presentation turned me off. That’s actually a persistent problem I have with a lot of JRPGs. I am generally not a huge fan of quirk.

The Dark Spire comparatively is void of it. It’s a grim, atmospheric, and above all else, difficult game that takes Etrian Odyssey and injects it with brutality. That’s saying something too;Etrian Odyssey was no pushover.

The combat is bare bones, but still strategic and challenging. The presentation is either rendered in gorgeous hand drawn 2D or a retro, 8-bit wireframe. In short, it’s a game made for the type of person yearning for the hard as hell days of old. I ate it up.

4. Golden Sun (GBA)

I am of the firm opinion that the SNES was in many ways the best time for RPGs. The graphics are timeless, the stories were often great and the gameplay is still breing copied today.

Golden Sun emulates this era perfectly, combining, an attractive visual style and a good story with a fun and deep RPG. I loved the way it combined the puzzle solving of the Zelda games with the traditional turn based battles of the old Final Fantasy’s.

I don’t have too much really to say about Golden Sun aside from it being great.

3. Infinite Space (DS)

This is my one real cheat on this list in that I haven’t actually beaten Infinite Space as of yet. In fact, if you head back to my backlog post, you’ll see it there right below Chrono Trigger DS.

That said, I’ve put about twenty hours into it and freaking love it. It has a sci-fi setting that is actually pure sci-fi. None of that “technology meets fantasy” stuff that is often too prevelent in RPGs. It has an attractive visual style, unique (if occasionally repetetive) gameplay, and above all else an interesting story.

It starts off as many RPGs do, with a young man leaving his town (err…planet) to seek adventure. I know it’s a played out premise, but the story quickly expands into a mature exploration of war, freedom and the loss of innocence in a cruel universe. I’ve read that the ending is lackluster, but I would still recommend this if you’re an RPG fan with a DS. If nothing else, it never gets old watching your spaceships blow up other spaceships. P-koo! P-koo!

2. Final Fantasy Legends III (GB)

Time travel! Space ships! Swords! Monsters! Final Fantasy Legend III was all the world saving fun a Game Boy toting youngster could ask for.

Final Fantasy Legend III stands out to me in a few ways in particular. First off, modifying your characters was really unique throughout the game. Rather than switching classes, after defeating some monsters you’d often be presented with the option to eat a piece of meat or install a cyborg part recovered from one of your foes. This would essentially change a character’s species based on what you install/eat. Combining different parts would yield different results. As I recall, I eventually wound up just sticking with my character’s in their basic human form.

More than this though, I loved the time traveling elements. Well before Chrono Trigger was impressing people with its different eras, Legend III was laying the groundwork by allowing your party to traverse different time periods in the same world. The basic idea was that you needed to defeat a power whose reach extended from the past to the future. Nothing too unfamiliar to gamers nowadays, but back then it was pretty cool and original.

1. Fire Emblem (GBA)

A lot of people complain that the SRPG genre as a whole is stagnant, just rehashing the same tired gameplay tropes from Final Fantasy Tactics.

Fire Emblem is miraculous in that the series’ gameplay as a whole has barely changed from its early days on the NES and yet, with each new installment I can’t get enough of it. The gameplay is simple to grasp, yet unflinchingly punishing. Many hate the game’s perma-death mechanic, but for me it just feels as if my every move and decision has real weight. In Final Fantasy Tactics, death is perfectly cureable. Just bring a Pheonix Down to the party. In Fire Emblem, if you’re careless you’ll lose a character for good.

Amplifying this effect is the strong storytelling and character development prevalent throughout the games. Opting for stories based more around political intrigue and human struggles, the plots are generally more interesting then the standard “ultimate evil vs. goody two shoes good guys” story. Furthermore, each character big and small has a backstory which can be unlocked by keeping them close to other characters, thereby establishing relationships. You don’t know hard until you’re faced with sacrificing a soldier actually care about for victory.

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