Syncaine at Hardcore casual has a post here comparing WoW to FF 7. It’s a good comparison, in that both were hugely influential blockbuster titles that widened the market. But the best RPG of that era was not FF 7, it was a mostly ignored game on a failing platform called Panzer Dragoon Saga, and it is one of the legendary RPGS of the genre.
Sega had made two Panzer Dragoon games before. Both were semi-on rails shooters in which you flew on the back of your own guardian dragon blasting otherworldly beasts and enemies. The design was very notable in part because they drew on the French artist Mobius for inspiration, with the dragon of the game as much an armored beetle in looks as a dragon. The two are incredible games, with the second, one of my all-time favorites. Here’s an embed of one of the most memorable fights of 2, fighting a monster deep within a hidden temple. Sound and Graphics are off though.
The surprise though, was the third. Panzer Dragoon Saga was a full-on RPG set in the same universe, and in terms of design, it blew away everything any roleplaying game had done since. You had no party-it was just you and your dragoon. But combat was hardly dull-you targeted specific spots on multiple airborne enemies as you flew across some incredible landscapes, changing position relative to your enemy and looking for weak points. The enemies were incredibly creative and diverse, not the usual vaguely-mythological anime takes we see in most japanese rpgs.
The storyline was amazing. You were Edge, a young man guarding a remote empire outpost. One day in it one of the ancient biological monsters from the past rampages inside of it, and Edge manages to defeat it by blowing the floor from underneath it. But in its struggles, it reveals an unearthly girl locked inside an artifact. Her name is Azel, and she has a destiny which draws Edge into a greater conflict that can determine whether or not humanity lives or dies. The intro is embedded below, and it is night and day compared to the famous FF 7 intro in design and seriousness.
The sad thing is that so few people played this. It’s very rare, with only 30,000 copies made, and was released on the Sega Saturn, which had to fight against the juggernaut PS one. But Sega in the past had a reputation for making incredible games, and this is one of the very best. If WoW is like FF7, we need an MMO like Panzer Dragoon Saga.