The RPG (role-playing game) originally made the transition from pen-and-paper to computer screens in the 1970s. But it was during the late 1980s and early 1990s when the RPG really came into its own and settled into the patterns that would prevail in the genre for years. Some of those 8- and 16-bit games are still considered to be among the best RPGs ever made, like Final Fantasy IV and VI (sometimes called II and III), Dragon Quest, and Chrono Trigger.
While some might consider these oldies to be outdated now, they have some quirks that I believe make them stand up to the AAA titles of today. For example, these games had great storylines. I would compare an RPG to a good novel, while a mega-hit game like CoD: Black Ops is more like a summer blockbuster movie. And some of us prefer the slower-paced, character-driven, nuanced story of a novel to the explosion-filled adrenaline rush of a blockbuster film.
These old-school RPGs also featured memorable characters that always had a sort of charm that's rare in modern games. While the sprite-based, large-headed, anime-inspired characters don't look even moderately realistic, they sure are fun to look at. In fact, there is one art theory that claims that the more simplified a drawing of a face is, the more easily people can identify themselves in it, which means that the old, simplified look was more relatable for players than the new hyper-realistic look. (This phenomenon is described with a lot more detail by Scott McCloud in his fascinating book, Understanding Comics.)
And to make the characters even more relatable, players were allowed to rename them. If you wanted to stick with the original names, that was fine. But it was a lot of fun to create your own names, or even name your in-game characters after your real-life friends. Since the story was told via text, it was easy to swap one name for another without encountering any problems. These RPGs excelled at giving us characters that we ended up falling in love with.
The PSOne era continued to throw fresh 2D RPGs at us like Wild Arms and the re-release of the Lunar series. But in 1997, one little game called Final Fantasy VII changed everything. Instead of following this 2D sprite-based visual look, Final Fantasy VII used 3D (polygonal) characters on pre-rendered backdrops that were really 2D but designed to give the illusion of the third dimension.
Final Fantasy VII was a massive success, and was hailed by many gamers to be the best video game of all time. It was widely influential in finally popularizing the RPG in the United States. Since hardware had improved enough to be able to handle all these 3D characters and eventually 3D environments, the RPG began to take on a different form. While a majority of FFVII isn't truly 3D, it certainly paved the way for a new era of 3D RPGs.
The following year saw the release of another hallmark in the history of video games – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. This game proved that the formula established by its action RPG predecessors worked beautifully in 3D, giving the gaming industry an excellent example of how well an action RPG could exist in the third dimension.