19 – Secret of Mana
Initial Release Date: August 6, 1993
Why it’s one of the best RPGs: Though technically a spin-off of Final Fantasy, Secret of Mana diverted from the predictable Final Fantasy formula in key ways, to great success. Your party in Secret of Mana only consists of three members–you control one of your choices, the other two are AI-controlled (with customization settings for different playstyles) or can be used for multiplayer control in combat. Combat uses active time, with Ring Commands that, while selecting an action, pause the game. With everything constantly moving, it would have been easy to flub the UI, Secret of Mana does well at presenting information concisely and usefully.
The story follows a young man who has obtained the Mana Sword, and must recharge its power and stop the evil Thanatos from bringing “world peace” through destructive means. The journey takes the player over an enormous overworld riddled with monsters, where you can travel on foot and fight your way through, or via cannon, and later by riding a dragon–one of the early examples of the “airship” opening up the entire world for exploration. Given its beauty and depth of gameplay, it’s a shame Secret of Mana didn’t get as much pre-release hype in North America as in Japan, and thus didn’t do quite as well. Such is often the fate of excellent JRPGs.
Next: 18 - Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars