RPGs That Make Us Feel Good
It is that time of the year again. Leaves slowly change their colour before they are carried away by the cold autumn wind and clutter the dimly-lit streets. It won’t be long before the summer sun is nothing but a faint memory. It is hard to not feel sad. Especially since we are still in the middle of a global pandemic. But there is always a ray of sunlight that we keep with us. That one game that makes us happy in these darker times.
In this article we share some of the games we choose to play when we want to lighten our spirits. Role-playing games that made us feel good.
Erik van Asselt
When Pokémon came out in the west, I was already considered to be too old for it. Talking about it as a teenager was not on the list of things that would make you look cool. So it has always been a guilty pleasure for me. I would play all the mainline Pokémon games and love every single one of them.
But when I am not feeling great, there is always one Pokémon game that makes me feel better. One I bought on release, just to have something to play during my summer holiday. Then I played it again during the next summer holiday after. And also the year after that. Pokémon Gold is my feel-good game. It introduced so many things that are now staples of the series, such as breeding and eggs. I must have spent ages on breeding multiple Eevees, because I needed an Umbreon and an Espeon in my party. How else was I going to justify all those hours I’d dumped into the game?
My fondest memory is my journey with Ursaring. I loved his design and the fact of having a giant bear in my party. What started as a joke became a legend. He became a powerful ally and together we destroyed every trainer who dared to look at us. We marched through Victory Road and showed the Elite Four what it really meant to be a Pokémon Master.
So every time when I feel down, I pick up Pokémon Gold again and feel like I am transported back to those memories. Memories of a simpler time. Memories of a happy time.
When I was 9, I remember seeing TV commercials for a game that showed various Disney characters on-screen, set to Hikaru Utada’s “Simple and Clean”, a song that still hits me with a nostalgia bomb upon listening to it. When I first heard about Kingdom Hearts, I wasn’t really familiar with either Square or the Final Fantasy series, aside from an embarrassing attempt at playing Final Fantasy Tactics after my brother borrowed it from a friend of ours.
Kingdom Hearts was, for all intents and purposes, my proper introduction to Square, Final Fantasy, and JRPGs in general. The idea of playing through the world of Disney movies I loved as a kid was certainly an exciting prospect, but it was the simple yet effective storytelling that really captured my imagination. It managed to be charming, while still having enough darkness sprinkled throughout it.
Of course, actually playing through the game did have its ups and downs. Initially, instead of buying the game, my brother rented it multiple times from a Blockbuster, as he slowly played through it. I struggled to get past the Alice in Wonderland world, which led me to repeatedly restart the game from scratch and seeing the opening sections of the game several times. That’s not even getting into the fact that I didn’t really have any concept of level-ups and other RPG niceties, like stats, until my brother pointed them out to me.
Despite my troubles, I still managed to see a good chunk of the later parts of the game by watching my brother play it and enjoyed the experience enough that I asked for my own copy of the game for my birthday. My wish came true as my aunts had gotten me the game, along with a DVD copy of Disney’s Peter Pan. After once again restarting from the beginning, I had finally gotten past Wonderland and even managed to get all the way to the end of Agrabah before our PlayStation 2 started to have issues with reading game discs. This meant I wasn’t able to play the game for several months, until my mom got us a new PlayStation 2. While the Monstro world initially stumped me after jumping back in, it wasn’t long before I got back in the game.
After a long year of playing through the game in fits and bursts, I finally finished it after a long, multi-phase final boss, something I wasn’t used to back then. Despite a few frustrations with certain parts of the game, I quickly restarted the game on the harder difficulty setting, because I really loved it that much. To this day, I still consider beating Sephiroth after spending a lot of time grinding up levels to be one of my proudest accomplishments.
Looking back at the game, you see that it is not without its flaws and it didn’t age particularly well. But everything, from the visuals to the music and the overall atmosphere, really appealed to me as a kid and it’s still a game I have a lot of fondness for. Even though I wouldn’t consider Kingdom Hearts 1 as my favourite Kingdom Hearts game, it’s definitely the entry that really brings me the warmest feelings overall.
Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is and will always be the ultimate feel-good game for me. After seeing numerous previous entries in the series stranded in Japan and seeing forum posts that speculated if we would even see a western release, witnessing an English version coming out only a year after the original release brought instant pangs of nostalgia to my heart. I put in my pre-order that day and eagerly awaited my first midnight release in nearly a decade.
What I discovered was everything I had waited for and even more. Koichi Sugiyama’s score, despite the controversy on the midi soundtrack versus a fully-orchestrated soundtrack, sent me to the past of sitting on the floor in front of a CRTV that weighed more than I did, grinding slimes and seeking proof of my lineage as Erdrick’s descendant. The visuals screamed Akira Toriyama, character and monster designer since the series’ inception. I sat in my recliner, dog on my lap, playing for the entire night.
Throughout the game, the characters I met and the towns I explored felt vibrant and lively, giving an instant connection to the world and making me want to save it, despite the cursed pariah treatment I received in the first hours of gameplay. Every quest I completed felt like I was restoring light to the world and smiles to the faces of the masses, as Sylvando would put it.
Truly any Dragon Quest game fits the bill of a perfect feel-good game for me. Their consistency in structure, charm, and aesthetics breeds familiarity, as the names may change but the worlds continue to feel like home. Do yourself a favour and find the comfiest seat in your home, a thick but breathable blanket, and a copy of Dragon Quest XI, and lose yourself in the gaming equivalent of Grandma’s home cooking.
It’s very rare that I replay games. My time isn’t infinite and usually I am more interested in new experiences. That said, I’ve found myself replaying the original Paper Mario more often than I’d realized until having to come up with an answer to what my feel-good game is. While the game is not the first RPG I ever played — Diablo or Pokémon Red win that contest — its relative ease of accessibility mixed with a charming presentation that hasn’t lost any of its lustre over the last two decades makes Paper Mario an obvious choice to keep coming back to.
While not as varied or wacky as its direct sequel, or as experimental as the rest of the series beyond that, Paper Mario offers a colourful cast of characters, a regular roundup of Mario-themed levels, and simple turn-based combat that never overstays its welcome. It also most adheres to the traditional Mario story in an RPG setting, something not even Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars can claim. As the world unfolds in a series of downright delightful dioramas, a sense of what the Mushroom Kingdom is like on a day off grows, building a relaxed aura one would associate more with a vacation than anything else. While I hope Nintendo sees fit to give Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door a second wind, I can’t deny that Paper Mario popping up on the Nintendo Switch would provide for me another opportunity to revisit this old Nintendo 64 gem.
There’s only one video game franchise that is over two decades old that I have followed since its start: Pokémon. It was Pokémon Red that introduced me to the wonderful world of RPGs and it’s still the series nearest and dearest to my heart. I can’t name a single mainline Pokémon title that I could point to and say “this is my comfort game.” Much of that is because I almost never replay Pokémon games. The only game I have actually replayed many times is the Red version itself.
For better or worse, however, Pokémon games tend to follow the same formula: start the game in a podunk town, get your starter Pokémon from the regional professor named after a tree, meet your rival(s), travel through the region to defeat the eight Gym Leaders, fight against the evil team that usually wants to capture a legendary Pokémon for nefarious deeds, then challenge the Elite Four and the Champion to become the champ yourself.
This formula is both one of Pokémon‘s greatest handicaps and why it’s such a comforting series that I always come back to. Knowing how these games play out can make them feel samey and predictable. My favourite games in the series are the ones that change up the formula in major ways. Ruby and Sapphire take place in Hoenn, a region distant from Johto and Kanto. Black and White have the most plot in a main series game and the expected end is subverted, as the player has to do something other than beat the Champion to see the credits roll. Sun and Moon do away with Gyms, replacing them with the Island Challenge. There is comfort in familiarity, though. Sword and Shield went back to having Gyms, but I didn’t mind that as much as I thought after the previous generation. I find myself looking forward to the familiar, and seeing what has changed for the current generation.
For example, I must always pick the Fire-type starter. Seeing the fiery critter, apparently mandated by Game Freak to be based on the Chinese Zodiac, brings me back to picking Charmander for the first time when I was 12. Its final form, Charizard, remains one of my most beloved Pokémon to this day. While none of Charizard’s counterparts have quite captured my heart the same way, many are still Pokémon that I adore, such as Thyphlosion, Blaziken, Delphox, and Incineroar.
It’s the mixture of the familiar and the new that keeps me coming back to the series, even when I find that some games are weaker than others. There’s a great comfort, a sense of nostalgia, in playing a game that is very similar, at its core, to a life-changing title that I played over twenty years ago. I grew up with this series and still love it. I also look forward to what has changed: the new species, story, characters, region, and mechanics. While I keep hoping the next entry will improve upon the shortcomings of the previous one, I still fully intend to play Pokémon games as they come out
The year was 2000, I had just finished my freshman year of high school and my mother got married. I ended up spending the summer with my grandparents, who took me to Circuit City to buy a few video games to get through the summer break. Having borrowed Final Fantasy VII from a friend and liking what I played, I convinced my grandparents to buy me Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy VIII, and Final Fantasy IX. I played and beat Final Fantasy VII, loving every moment of it. Then I played Final Fantasy VIII up until you get the Ragnarok and you need to fight the colour-coded spiders. Being colour blind and not having internet at the time, I couldn’t figure that particular puzzle out. Out of frustration I put in Final Fantasy IX and was greeted with one of the best opening screens and music the series has ever produced.
The first time I played the game I played it for three days straight, only taking food and bathroom breaks. When the credits rolled I promptly slept for almost an entire day and started up a new save file afterwards. Just to get any weapons and abilities I might have missed in my first go-around. No other Final Fantasy will give me nostalgic flashbacks quite like Final Fantasy IX. Any time I hear “Melodies of Life”, I travel back to being fifteen years old, playing in my room at my grandparents’ house with the hum of the air conditioner being the only other noise in the room.
Everything, from the characters to the soundtrack to the beautifully-written story, captivated me from the start. Final Fantasy IX raised the bar not only for me, but for JRPGs as an entire genre. This game changed how I viewed video games. I enjoyed games I had played before, but Final Fantasy IX had something special. A spark of individuality that, for me, can’t truly be replicated.
This game helped me fundamentally shift what kind of games I wanted to play in the future. Before it was simple platformers or fighting games. Now I chose the wide and beautiful world of JRPGs. Final Fantasy IX is, to me, the game equivalent of going out and having dinner with a good friend that you maybe don’t get to see nearly as much as you’d like, but when you do, you make up for any lost time. And each time you get together is special and memorable.