Sega’s beleaguered 32-bit effort, the Saturn, did not skimp in the role-playing games department. In fact, it was probably one of the major reasons to own the console. Today, I am going to talk about the best Sega Saturn RPGs. I have picked five out that I think not only show off what the console can do, but also helps distinguish it from the PSX’s robust library.
What the Saturn lacked in Final Fantasy, it more than made up for with really cool strategy hybrids, and even a game that could have been the system’s own FFVII, if things had gone differently.
Ready to take on another retro journey? Let’s go!
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5. Shining the Holy Ark (developed by Sonic! Software Planning, published by Sega; JP 1996, NA and EU 1997)
This game is wild – and it is also a lot of fun. What makes it stand out now, as then, is its graphical style. A combination of classic Dragon Quest head-on dungeon crawling and Japanese anime, the bright colors, detailed sprites, and overall look and feel of the world screams JRPG.
As anyone who has followed video game history is likely aware, the Saturn was not the most powerful 3D console out on the market. But this game gives it a shot and the hybrid it churns out is uniquely beautiful and compelling in its own way.
Now, on to the gameplay, and what we have here could be a mixed bag. If you love RPG combat, this game is your bag, but if you find it tedious, steer clear of Shining. The animations behind the combat would be what we call “slow” today and this can make it a slog. And a lot of the game is focused on combat. It is a JRPG, after all.
Should you pick up Shining the Holy Ark? Dyed-in-the-wool JRPG fans should definitely give this at least one play through. Other gamers might want to do some more research first because this game is not interested in doing anything quickly but, that said, I think the experience is totally worth it.
4. Guardian Heroes (developed by Treasure, published by Sega in 1996)
Those of you that know your games might be thinking, “What is this doing here?” I hear you, but you might be forgetting this 2D brawler’s RPG-lite elements. From leveling up and gaining XP to the general “class” system that the various fighters represent, this title is not only innovative, its really darn unique for the 32-bit era.
Like other games on this list, it has aged really well and looks right at home in today’s gaming scene. The only thing that bothers me is that the beautiful animation sometimes breaks up into a pixelated mess here and there. While it has mechanics reminiscent of later titles like Odin Sphere, it is nowhere near as detailed and artistically executed.
3) Dragon Force (developed by J-Force and Sega, published by Sega; JP and NA 1996, EU 1997)
A land is divided among warring kingdoms that need to unite against a looming threat lest the world falls under the control of a malevolent force – forever. Yeah, the stakes are pretty high in Dragon Force. Luckily, the gameplay quality is there to match its ambitions. You pick one of several anime-styled rulers of different kingdoms who, in classic RPG fashion, have their own strengths and weaknesses. You level up your generals and yourself via battle and you also acquire new skills this way.
You will have to deal with bandits and even invading enemies – or perhaps even launch an invasion of the other kingdoms yourself! There are multiple storylines to follow and a coherent, common thread line through it all that makes replays a must. The strategy is not terribly deep – we are not talking Final Fantasy Tactics here – but it is engaging and a lot of fun. Probably one of Saturn’s most underappreciated games, Dragon Force has aged incredibly well and never feels like a retro title.
2) Grandia (developed by Game Art, published by ESP in 1997)
Often touted as Saturn’s Final Fantasy VII, Grandia is very much its own cup of tea. An amazingly well-made, delicious, and beautiful cup of tea, but, nonetheless, pretty familiar to anyone that has played a JRPG. There is nothing wrong with tropes. When done well, they can exceed all expectations. That is Grandia in a nutshell.
Sure, there is a huge nostalgia gap between fans of FFVII and this game. And the whole debate that game critics tried to ignite that this was somehow superior to the aforementioned game does seem silly in hindsight. Because all of this clouded the waters for what was and still is a stellar JRPG set in the traditional mold with an epic quest (and lots of it) and a fun battle system that was as complex as you wanted to make it.
Grandia’s marketing and the approach of critics back in the day was all off and its later appearance on the PlayStation was not nearly as impactful as this Saturn release. Easily one of the best games on the system, Grandia is a must play no matter how you get it.
Lunar 2: Eternal Blue Complete (developed by Game Arts and Studio Alex, published by Game Arts and Japan Art Media; JP 1998)
Gamers with a keen eye will probably remember this as being one of the shining lights of the Sega CD’s library. And you would be correct in that. So what is it doing here? Well, Lunar: Eternal Blue was so good it came out on the Saturn, too (and the PlayStation but I am not talking about that here).
By now, the RPG mechanics were starting to show their age but the classic, endearing story is still there with all of the Sega CD’s flash with a fresh coat of colors and sound for the Saturn. But it is still the same old Lunar and not an original IP like the rest on this list. Hence, the “honorable mention” status.
Now, if you are regular readers here, you know this is not the first time I talk about this underrated console. You are correct, three months ago I made a list of the 10 best Sega Saturn games, and given that the winner was an RPG, you also know what comes next…
1) Panzer Dragoon Saga (developed by Team Andromeda, published by Sega in 1998)
We live in an era where quirkiness is embraced and gamers are more than willing to give innovative games some breathing space. When it comes to consoles, this is even more true as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One increasingly carve out separate spaces in the video game world.
All of this is to say that one or the other would struggle to survive if everyone was making the same games for the same systems and just praying that you sold more than the competition through graphical superiority or what have you. This type of competition dominated the 16-bit era and later spilled over into the 32-bit and 64-bit era. That is to say that being different was not really what people wanted.
They wanted the best experience for the games they knew. After all, the Nintendo 64 introduced gamers to an entirely new world of games with its graphics, yet it was the PSX, with its “superior” versions of 16-bit games and 32-bit basic 3D that dominated.
Sega was perfectly poised to take on the PSX (much more so than the N64) but the company never embraced their quirkiness and unique IP. Instead, they tried to meet the PSX head on in areas where the Saturn was destined to fail due to its much smaller install base.
One game that critics and gamers alike fell in love with was Panzer Dragoon Saga. Other games might have claimed to challenge FFVII for the 32-bit crown, but only this game can actually make a legitimate claim. Those of you who know Panzer Dragoon might be thinking “how is that an RPG?” Well, like many games on this list, Panzer Dragoon Saga pioneered the art of fusion gameplay. It had heavy RPG elements and the Panzer Dragoon gameplay system.
Should you play this title? Yes. But it is kind of tough. Not only was it a title that came out in the last days of the system, but it is also really expensive to get. With that said, if you can, you have to play it, not even a question! It is just so refreshingly weird and unique that it makes you wonder “what if Sega had embraced their weird style and pumped out more unique IP like this?” We could be in a different console world today, retro folks.
Today’s list was a very “what-if-ish” one I know, but it had to be done. I hope it made you think, anyway. As usual, if you think I missed some deserving titles, please do not hesitate to share your opinion in the comments box below. Till next walk down memory lane!