Over the last fifteen years I've built a console and games collection that spans from 1977 to 2020. My preference has been to play games on original hardware using physical copies. For standard definition consoles that also includes playing on a CRT TV. But the retro gaming scene today isn't what it was like fifteen or even five years ago. When I got my Nintendo 64, I paid $20 and it came with two controllers, two games, in the original box, and in almost mint condition. Nowadays that would run closer to $200 or more, not to mention CRTs used to be basically free and now they can cost over $100. So I've decided to write this guide with a focus on pirating and emulation, and my recommendations will be for the Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and PC.
The last true Nintendo handheld. Comes in "old" and "new" models. Each line has a regular version, an XL version, and a 2DS, which is basically the budget version without 3D. There is no advantage to getting an old model other than price, and even then you're still better off getting a new model. The best choice for emulating NES, Game Boy/GBC, GBA, and DS games. If you have one of the new models, you can also emulate SNES and Genesis games and play homebrew ports of classic PC games.
The definitive 3DS game; like Super Mario 64 and the N64, Kid Icarus Uprising and the 3DS were designed in tandem. Gameplay is divided into rail shooter levels and action-adventure levels. Combat is fast-paced and the difficulty can be adjusted from laughably easy to surprisingly hard. The default controls give some people a hard time (especially lefties) so I recommend you find a control scheme that's comfortable, or use one of the new models or the Circle Pad Pro if you're left-handed. The retail version also comes with a stand that makes it way easier to use the default controls. If you get used to the controls you'll be treated to a huge variety of weapons and items, great graphics and soundtrack, and a fun story.
My personal favorite on this list. The turn-based battles use the Turn Press system, which encourages the player to exploit enemy weaknesses to gain turns. The player explores a 2D overworld and 3D dungeons and towns, building an army of demons through negotiation and recruitment, as well as fusing to create new demons. The first dungeon is notoriously hard, but afterwards the difficulty is average. The story is very simple and the characters are unremarkable, but the soundtrack is excellent and the game has an incredible atmosphere. There's also a sequel, Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse, with significant gameplay improvements and much worse characters.
The other two SMT games I recommend are first-person dungeon crawlers. The first is Strange Journey, which follows an elite military crew's attempt to escape (and destroy) an otherworldly dimension filled with demons. It was originally on the DS but later got a 3DS remake with voice acting and SMTIV-inspired gameplay enhancements. I prefer the original version for its harder difficulty and more cohesive artwork and atmosphere, but most people prefer the remake. The second is Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers, which was a Japanese-exclusive Sega Saturn game that was ported to the PlayStation and then to the 3DS before being localized. Soul Hackers is way easier than most other SMT games (even Persona), but it has an authentic '90s anime look and cyberpunk-influenced setting. These games are an excellent introduction to both older SMT games and dungeon crawlers in general.
Considered to be the best of the "classic" Monster Hunter games and a favorite of Japanese teenagers to this day. Unlike most action games, the gameplay is based on skillful positioning and the player's knowledge of their weapon and their opponent. Progression is measured by completing quests, getting better gear, and hunting more powerful monsters. Multiplayer is where the game really shines but it's getting hardre to find people to play with. The singleplayer is an excellent introduction to the series but I'd recommend looking up a guide for the early quests. Using one of the new models is recommended for better controls and faster loading times and framerates, but you can use the Circle Pad Pro to get better controls on the old models.
The original JRPG series. Every mainline game has been written and designed by Yuji Horii, with art and character design by Akira Toriyama and music by Koichi Sugiyama, and as a result each game feels very similar. All of the mainline games are playable on 3DS; unfortunately, X was only released in Japan and the 3DS version of XI is Japan-only. The Erdrick trilogy (I-III) can be emulated in either NES or GBC versions. The Zenithia trilogy (IV-VI) was remade on the DS. Dragon Quest VII and VIII both got 3DS remakes and Dragon Quest IX is on the DS. My personal favorite is Dragon Quest V, which has monster-taming gameplay and a story that spans three decades.
Baby's first JRPG finally grows up. Released during the creative peak of the Pokemon franchise, Conquest is a grand strategy RPG that allows the player to become a warlord, raising a Pokemon army to defeat Oda Nobunaga and conquer Japan. Most of the gameplay is from Nobunaga's Ambition, but the few Pokemon elements are integrated pretty well. It's easy to get into and it's thoroughly enjoyable for Pokemon fans and fans of more hardcore JRPGS. Despite how awesome this game is, the circumstances of its creation would cause a chain of events that would eventually give birth to Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE.
Another Pokemon spinoff that's better than the main series, combining the staple mechanics of the franchise with roguelike dungeon crawling. Unlike most roguelikes there is no permadeath and the game is relatively easy, although the typing of your team can make some dungeons frustratingly difficult and others almost trivial. The game is quest-based and has a surprisingly emotional and relatively dark story. Some dungeons go on for way too long and can be very repetitive, especially in the later parts of the game, but these dungeons tend to be optional or postgame. The soundtrack is also particularly good, in keeping with the main series during this period.
Nintendo's flagship handheld franchise for twenty-five years and counting. The series hit its peak about ten years ago and has gone further and further downhill, seemingly held back by its developers' inability to fully adapt to 3D and HD game development. Fortunately the games from the peak period (including Conquest and Mystery Dungeon above) are so good that they still hold up extremely well today. I define this period as beginning with Platinum, continuing with Heartgold/Soulsilver and Black/White, and ending with Black 2/White 2. I believe that these are the definitive modern Pokemon games, with each entry innovating in a strong way.
Comes in three models: the "fat" 1000-series, the "slim" 2000-series, and the TV microconsole. Generally the slim is the best one to get. In my opinion the PS Vita is close to the epitome of what made the older PlayStation consoles great: well-designed and forward-thinking hardware, a high-quality library of Japanese games, and robust support for homebrew and hobbyists. The Vita has flawless native emulation for PlayStation and PSP games along with an official third-party emulator for certain Neo Geo games. Also has a huge selection of homebrew emulators for other retro consoles and ports of classic PC and PS2 games.
The highest-rated game on the Vita and usually considered to be the most popular. A combination of Shin Megami Tensei dungeon crawling and visual novel-inspired life simulation. The player is a high-school student who moves from the city to the countryside and becomes involved in a murder investigation tied to an urban legend called the Midnight Channel, while learning about Jungian psychology and discovering the value of friendship. The game is notorious for being an "anime high school simulator", but it's a solid RPG with randomly generated dungeons and a simpified version of SMT's Turn Press combat. Despite taking almost 100 hours to complete, a catchy (repetitive) soundtrack and memorable cast of (mostly) likable characters help the ride feel shorter. This game is also available on Windows.
Like Super Mario 64 and the N64 (or Kid Icarus Uprising and the 3DS), this game was designed in tandem with the Vita; its developers are said to have been the driving force behind the addition of the rear touchpad and dual joysticks as well as influencing other hardware and software design choices. The graphics are a strong showcase for the Vita's power, with vibrant colors purposefully designed to take advantage of the (fat) Vita's OLED screen. Gameplay is fluid and fast, and set to an equally fast techno soundtrack, although the loading screens can interrupt the flow between races. This was the last game developed by Studio Liverpool, which was closed several months after launch in spite of its role in the creation of the Vita.
The Vita's counterpart to the "cinematic open world action-adventure" first-party games of the PlayStation 4, developed by the team behind Silent Hill and the Siren series. The story is presented in a manga style heavily inspired by French comics, which extends to the world design and the cel-shaded graphical style. The story itself is very light-hearted and character-focused, but the longer it goes on the less it makes sense. The core of the gameplay revolves around the ability to float and fall in any direction, which makes exploration feel incredibly fun and polished. The combat is very shallow, but playing around with gravity abilities can make it more interesting. A remaster and sequel were developed for PS4 before Japan Studio was dissolved in 2021.
Games developed as successors to Princess Crown, a Japanese-exclusive Sega Saturn game. Currently there are three games in the series: Odin Sphere (Leifthrasir), Muramasa (Rebirth), and Dragon's Crown. Each game has different thematic elements and mechanics to match, but they all feature gorgeous artwork and fast-paced beat 'em up side-scrolling action with RPG elements. Odin Sphere and Dragon's Crown strike a balance between action and RPG, while Muramasa leans more into action with light platforming. Dragon's Crown also features a cooperative multiplayer mode. At times the gameplay can feel repetitive, especially on easier difficulties, and the story can interrupt the pacing of the action, but otherwise these games are a modern landmark in 2D game design.
In a last-minute attempt to learn magic and fight a wizard, the player befriends a talking book that tells the touching "boy meets girl" story of an up-and-coming sorcerer and his companion. The action-RPG gameplay is usually compared to Monster Hunter, but in my opinion it's a lot more like Phantom Dust. Missions tend to be pretty repetitive and usually amount to "kill monsters", but the combat system is shockingly deep and technical. The artstyle and monster designs are both grotesque and appealing with a unique dark fantasy style, and the graphics are almost PS3 quality at times. The co-op multiplayer mode is ridiculously fun, but the narrative is where the single-player truly shines. This game has so many layers that I don't want to give away, so just go play it. It's absolutely worth your time.
The original "Metroidvania". The game design of Castlevania II, with non-linear exploration and extensive RPG elements, is reintroduced and enhanced by design elements taken from Super Metroid, such as a large interconnected map with save points and progression based on key items or power-ups. As a result, the game is generally considered to be a pioneer of the genre and the best in the series. While I personally prefer the linear "Classicvania" games, it's undeniable that this game is one of the most influential ever made (especially in the indie scene). Unfortunately, despite its refinements and enhancements, it's much easier than most games in the series. If you were left wanting more, there was also a line of sequels for the GBA and DS.
The first AAA game, with full motion video cutscenes, elaborate pre-rendered backgrounds, and cinematic battles. Not only did it pave the way for the modern game industry, it introduced many Americans to RPGs and is generally thought of as the quintessential JRPG. The gameplay isn't anything special, featuring the "Active Time Battle" turn-based combat typical of Squaresoft games made during the 90s and early 2000s, but the large amount of side-quests and bonus dungeons help the game feel fleshed-out. The main storyline is paced very well and the gradually unfolding plot will pull you all the way to the final boss. The game is probably most famous for its unique science-fantasy setting and art direction, as well as its characters (particularly Cloud and Sephiroth) and soundtrack. This game is also available on Windows with questionable "modernizations".
The game that single-handedly pioneered both the stealth genre and cinematic story-driven games. The cutscenes are absurdly long and the storyline isn't particularly well-written or cohesive, but the characters and plot devices are some of the most iconic in the industry and are still constantly referenced to this day. The gameplay is billed as "tactical espionage action", with the objective of each level simply being to reach the end without dying. In most cases getting caught leads to a game over, but you're given a wide variety of tools to sneak through levels and fight bosses. This game is also available on Windows with some extra and some missing features.
Contains Metal Gear Solid 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3, as well as Metal Gear and Metal Gear 2, updated for the Vita. MGS2 and MGS3 are considered to be some of the greatest games ever made and build upon the gameplay and narrative of the original in an immensely strong way. Both games should be played by anyone who appreciates video games as a form of entertainment and/or as an artistic medium. The original two Metal Gear games are more of an extra than anything else, but they're worth trying out. The 360 and PS3 versions of this collection also include Peace Walker HD, but on the Vita you have to emulate the original version separately. MGS3 is also available on the 3DS with crouch-walking, but the Vita version runs better, looks better, and controls better.
While on a field trip in Kyōto, you discover that every major school in Japan will also be coming to the city over the course of the week. As the top bancho of your prefecture (which you choose at the beginning of the game), you decide to dominate the other 46 banchos to become the bancho of the entire country. The gameplay is like a simplified version of Yakuza combined with River City Ransom, taking place over the course of the week with the pacing determined entirely by the player; you can even choose to do nothing at all. There is also a morality system offering the choice between "bancho" (delinquent) and "shabazo" (weakling), based on whether you fight dirty or clean. Become the ultimate badass!
Every game listed here will be available for purchase on GOG.com, easily pirated, or otherwise distributed without DRM. Ideally they will run natively on GNU/Linux or be compatible with Wine. If you use Steam, Valve's Proton works extremely well.
One of the hidden gems of the indie roguelike craze, with a Dying Earth-inspired sci-fi/fantasy setting. Almost all of the game's open world and dungeons are procedurally generated, with a pre-written main quest to guide the player through the world in addition to procedurally generated quests. Character customization is insanely deep, with mutant characters having a huge set of powers and "true kin" human characters having access to cybernetic enhancements, in addition to an overwhelming amount of weapons, armor, and items. The game's graphics are inspired by minimalist computer interfaces and can take some getting used to. The sheer density of the game is hard to describe, especially since it's still in early access and is being updated almost every week.
Baby's first visual novel, collaboratively developed by /jp/, /v/, and /a/. The game became infamous on its initial release due to its association with 4chan and being a "disabled girl dating simulator". In spite of its reputation, the game treats its subject matter with sincerity and respect, outside of the gratuitous sex scenes (which can be opted out of). The story is very interactive and there are lots of different routes and endings, and the characters are generally well-written and developed. The soundtrack and art are surprisingly well-produced for a decentralized development team. The game might be too "weeby" for your taste, but it's a short, sweet waste of an afternoon (or weekend).
A sandbox medieval strategy action-RPG. The game starts out on a small-scale, with just your character and a small band of peasants setting out to destroy a gang of bandits. As the game continues on, you grow in prestige as your band becomes an army. Eventually you can choose to serve under a noble and join a faction, or establish your own kingdom by force. You can command troops in a variety of different battle scenarios, whether out in the open, in the siege of a castle or fort, or an attack on a village or bandit lair. There's also a fun multiplayer mode, taking place either in the fictional kingdoms of the single-player mode or in Europe during the Napoleonic Wars. An alternate single-player mode taking place in Northwestern Europe during the Danelaw period was also added, with both a story mode and traditional sandbox mode available. The modding community for this game is extremely active and there are tons of mods to add features or completely overhaul the game. I personally recommend the Diplomacy mod.
The Warcraft trilogy is one of the greatest RTS series of all time, but Warcraft III in particular elevates and exemplifies the genre in a way not seen before or since. The single-player campaign follows the struggles of humans, orcs, and night elves as they attempt to fend off an extradimensional demonic invasion. The Frozen Throne expansion continues the story of the orcs and high elves trying to find their place in a broken and wartorn world. Warcraft III's sequel, World of Warcraft, would ultimately become one of the defining games of the 2000s and one of my personal favorite games. I'd recommend playing it on a free Vanilla private server instead of playing Shadowlands or on Blizzard's Classic servers.
I'm planning on adding StarCraft and Diablo II to this recommendation, but I ran out of time to write good descriptions.
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