Looking back on my life of playing RPGs, nothing stands out quite like the 16-bit era, especially the SNES library. This period was long after I first touched the genre, but it’s when RPGs really started dominating my gaming habits. A lot of different factors have to do with why I find this time so formative to my RPG devotion, but I really feel these early games captured something timeless. 

This era was the first time I remember really being affected by storytelling in a game. Secret of Mana’s banishment scene still hits me right in the gut, as does Final Fantasy VI's dark storyline. VI’s small narrative moments said so much, such as its coin toss scene (although, let’s also give Final Fantasy IV some props for opening the door for dramatic storytelling.) This was also the first time I saw that RPGs could be silly and break the fourth wall à la Earthbound. Chrono Trigger didn’t change the direction of RPGs, but it hit every note as high as possible, including novel ideas such as a New Game+ feature and double and triple-techs. All of these games made me fall in love with the genre.  

Recently, we did a Top 100 RPGs list, and I couldn’t get away from how many of my favorite games launched during the 16-bit era, and that I’d still recommend to this day. I don’t think it’s merely a matter of nostalgia – this time was also teeming with creativity and substance. Having to think of how to time travel to get what I needed in Chrono Trigger is one of my earliest memories of really having to think outside of the box. I remember this period making my head spin as a gamer – one of those times where you really see the magic of your hobby and realize why you adore it so much. In Earthbound, I thought it was so clever I hosted sleepovers just to show my friends every little cool moment or reference. Before we’d snap photographs, “Say Fuzzy Pickles” was a requirement. These games affected me long after I turned off the console, and that’s a feat in itself.

People often like to debate the Golden Age of RPGs, which is hard to answer because each console era tries to push the limits of the prior, advancing the genre in some way. But I always come back to the SNES’s library; in terms of quality and games still holding up, it is unmatched. It was also a huge era of innovation with developers setting a really strong foundation. The 16-bit technology gave RPGs the space for better graphics, text, and the ability to be creative with sound and scale. Final Fantasy VI's opera, anyone?

When people ask me what I think the best RPG of all time is, no matter how many ways I slice it, an SNES RPG is always at the top of the list. I think Chrono Trigger does everything the best (even if it wasn’t the most innovative game of the era), making it often my pick. For personal reasons, I sometimes look at Secret of Mana because I bonded with my grandpa over it, and it helped the action/RPG thrive. Other times, I just like how dark and affecting Final Fantasy VI was, and how moments from that game still stick out to me over 20 years later. 

I wrote this particular column because sometimes it’s just cool to look back on the things that made you part of who you are. The 16-bit era really defined me as an RPG fan. I love that decades later, we’re still talking about these games with such esteem, and that new fans are born every day thanks to re-releases.

What era of RPGs made you fall in love with the genre? Discuss in the comments below!