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My Top 5 Fantasy Video Games

1986 by Matt LeunigIt should come as no surprise that there is quite a bit of overlap between the gamer community and the fantasy/sci-fi community. Reasons both generational and intellectual account for this overlap, and while not every gamer loves genre fiction and vice versa, I think the basic premise is a safe one. Since the earliest days of PC and console gaming, there have been games set in fantastical worlds. Some of my first gaming memories involve playing the text-based Zork games on a school-owned Apple IIc, Adventure on my grandmother’s Atari 2600 and Gauntlet at the local arcade in the mall. I’m sure many of you have similar memories (although depending on your age your initial fare may have been a bit more modern). I still play fantasy video games, and since I finally just started Bethesda’s excellent The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I thought it might be fun to run down my Top 5 Fantasy Video Games. Without further ado…

5. Gauntlet

Gauntlet (poster)I was seven years old when Atari’s Gauntlet hacked and slashed its way into my heart. In 1985, arcades still existed. Bowling alleys had video game rooms, and even the local 7-11 was willing to give up some space for kids to toss quarters into a cabinet.

Gauntlet was a simple hack-and-slash game set in a fantastical underworld. You could play as an axe-wielding dwarf, a magic user, an elven bowman or a barbarian (I think…could have been just a simple human warrior…the point is, the guy had a sword). But instead of simply playing by yourself, four people could each drop a quarter and play cooperatively. As a seven-year-old, this blew my mind. And the fact that I was fighting evil skeletons, minotaur and other creatures of fantasy made it even better. The gameplay was simple, the difficulty curve was steep, and I wasted a ton of money on a game I (still) haven’t really mastered.

4. Final Fantasy IV

My first experience with Final Fantasy IV was in 1991 when somehow I wound up with a copy for my Super Nintendo. The game was called Final Fantasy II in North America at the time of release, and it blew my 13-year-old mind. I had played the original Final Fantasy for the NES, and I had loved it. I credit that game and the original Dragon Warrior for a love of JRPGs that abides to this day.

Final Fantasy IV (cover)But Final Fantasy IV was something different. There were characters. With names. And histories. Disparate kingdoms. Love, betrayal, revenge and redemption. It was like a 16-bit movie that lasted for months. Whether it was level grinding in the overworld, flying around in my airship or saving up enough gil to max out my potion capacity for one more try at the final boss, I enjoyed every frustrating minute.

I had never played a game that drew me in with a story and kept me around with unique gameplay. I’ve bought every remake and iteration for every system since, and at the time of this writing I have a play-through in progress on my Nintendo 3DS XL. The story of Cecil and the Crystals is one I never seem to tire of.

3. Hero’s Quest: So You Want to Be a Hero

Quest for Glory I (cover)Ahhh, Sierra! You’ll always hold a special place in my heart. EGA and VGA adventure games relying upon text input and puzzle solving, Sierra handled fantasy better than anyone in the gaming world for a 5 or 6-year period in the late 1980s and early 1990s. All of the “Quest” games were staples of my youth, and I played the vast majority of them on my friend’s then-cutting-edge “IBM 486” computer. While King’s Quest, Police Quest and the hilarious Space Quest games were all great fun, the first Hero’s Quest game (later re-titled Quest for Glory) is my favorite and, I think, the best of the bunch.

Part RPG, part adventure title and 100% tongue-in-cheek, Hero’s Quest delivered hour upon hour of exploration, inane training and grinding, and hilarity. I played it as a thief, I played it as a mage, and I played it as a fighter. I was weirdly disturbed by Baba Yaga. I threw knives at brigands and ran from Kobolds. I drew my own map of the valley of Spielburg. I cackled at Erasmus. I issued absurd commands at every opportunity. Hero’s Quest was an interactive fairy tale rendered in digital Crayola colors. It was and always will be a touchstone for me and no list would be complete without it. And Quest for Glory II: Trial By Fire was awesome too. Dervish anyone?!

2. The Legend of Zelda/The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time

The Legend of Zelda (cover)Until a couple years ago, the original Zelda was tied with Metroid for my favorite game. Just before school started back up, in August of 1987, I was nine years old. My reading habits had already started to form, and The Lord of the Rings, Dragonlance, and David Eddings were beginning to infiltrate my consciousness. And along came Link. The stubby little bundle of pixels, with his hearts, sword and shield. The beautiful golden cartridge. The diversity of foes and environments. THE ABILITY TO SAVE YOUR GAME. It was like mana from heaven.

I cannot quantify the hours I spent slaying tectites and cursing like-likes for eating my shield. I was adrift in the Lost Woods for what seemed like eons. I couldn’t understand why “it” was a “secret.” And I loved dropping bombs on every wall I could find. The Legend of Zelda, which when you think about it was pretty minimalist in the story department (especially if you didn’t read the manual), was utterly captivating. And the game, like the best fantasy novels, holds up to this day. Sure, the mechanics are dated, but the challenge and fun that was present initially are still there.

The Legend of Zelda - The Ocarina of Time (cover)Released for the Nintendo 64 when I was in High School, The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is considered (almost universally) one of the best video games ever made. OoT wasn’t my first foray into Hyrule—and it isn’t even my favorite—but it is definitely a game I will play for the rest of my life. The visuals (it was the first 3D Zelda game), the music (which gives me chills to this day) and the gameplay were nothing short of revolutionary.

OoT was a precursor to the “open world” games of the modern age, allowing players to roam the fields, forests and towns of Hyrule in search of items enemies and power-ups. The story was complex (for a Zelda game) and the payoff was HUGE, particularly considering the amount of time most of us put into the game when it came out. OoT was a masterwork; it and proved that a sword, a boomerang and a story could transcend both genre and medium.

1. Dark Souls

Dark Souls (cover)Released on October 4, 2011 in North America with the tagline “Prepare to Die,” Dark Souls is the greatest video game I have ever played. Bar none. A brutally difficult and intentionally obtuse game, Dark Souls is Zelda reborn for adult gamers. At its heart, it is a third-person hack-and-slash game set in the fantasy world of Lordran. All the usual tropes are present. Scads of swords, armor and other equipment are there for the finding (or taking…). Dragons roam burnt out keeps, the undead roam graveyards and fanatic clerics preach destruction.

There is really nothing original about Dark Souls’ component parts. But the brutal difficulty, the near-perfect control scheme and the story that simply and unobtrusively unfolds through actual gameplay and a series of gorgeous cutscenes all add up to a masterwork. Dark Souls isn’t for everybody. I know hardened, experienced gamers that couldn’t stand it. But if you are a fan of fantasy, I highly recommend you give it a shot. It took me nearly 200 hours over the course nearly ten months to finally finish the game, and when I finished I truly felt like I had beat it. I was exultant. And I can’t wait for the sequel.

So there’s my list. Games like Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, the Dragon Age series, and Baldur’s Gate get honorable mentions. What are your favorite fantasy games? I look forward to reading about them in the comments!

Title image by Matt Leunig.



  1. Avatar Ryan Howse says:

    Planescape: Torment. No game has ever come as close to the brilliant writing of that game. (Your selection is also fantastic. I loved the early Final Fantasy series; IV is still one of my favorites.)

  2. Avatar Autumn2May says:

    Yes! I was going to say Torment as well but I will add Chrono Trigger to the list. 🙂

  3. Avatar Khaldun says:

    Chrono Trigger for sure. @Ryan Howse you may be interested to know that Planescape is getting a new version called Torment: Tides of Numenera view at (kickstarter already ended)

    • Avatar Ryan Howse says:

      It’s the one game I’m looking forward to getting! Though I will definitely need a new computer.

      I would also love to see an Enhanced Edition like Baldur’s Gate got. We’ll see.

  4. Avatar Ur-Quan says:

    The list misses some fantastic names. Dark souls is nowhere near the feet of some giants like Planescape, Baldur’s Gate, Arcanum, Morrowind, etcetera, etcetera.

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      I actually think Dark Souls as a video game is better than all those listed. I grant you that the others all have better story lines and World Building, but in terms of a game – I think Dark Souls is a worthy winner.

      • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

        There are a ton of games not on the list, obviously. Baldur’s Gate got an honorable mention. I like the Elder Scrolls games too, but I detest the first-person perspective they rely upon. To me, it leads to horribly inelegant combat. And when I’m playing a game, gameplay is paramount. That’s why Dark Souls was #1 on the list. The gameplay is AMAZING. So good, in fact, that I had a very hard time with Dragon’s Dogma and Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I never played Planescape, as I was not (an still am not) much of a PC gamer. I’ve heard nothing but good things, though. This is just MY Top 5.

        • Avatar KirkH says:

          All the Elder Scroll games can be played in Third Person. The writing isn’t great, but no game creates even a tenth of the atmosphere, environments, or freedom.

  5. Avatar Overlord says:

    That said, I think a lot of it depends on when you played it. For example, I played Diablo 2 around the time it came out and my memories of it are still that it was AMAZING. However, when I tried to play it recently, it just didn’t live up to what I remembered.

    Similarly, I didn’t actually play Planescape until about 10 years after it came out and you could certainly feel its age. Also, I played Baulder’s Gate after the PS3 was released and so it did feel dated too (and I remember really, really slow).

    There are a ton of DS Games that I really, really like. Dragon Warrior Monsters, Digimon, Pokemon, anything with collectible monsters 😉 The Persona / Digital Devil Saga games / XXXXX of Mana games, Final Fantasy games too.

    All in all, I think this list is very person specific, but I think that it’s justifiable and gives a good starting point for other people to list their top 5. Nice work, Zachary.

    • Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

      Thanks Marc! I’m a huge fan of the Persona/SMT games as well, I just didn’t consider them “fantasy.” I’m not sure why…

      Dragon Warrior was a tough series to keep off the list, but when it came down to it I couldn’t bump anything else. Never played a Pokemon game…maybe I’ll give the new ones a shot.

      Baldur’s Gate is a classic, but not a favorite. I am looking forward to Diablo III on the PS4 eventually.

      There are scads of DS RPGs and fantasy action games I want to play (including Chrono Trigger, which I’m ashamed to say I’ve never played). I’ve only had a 3DS for about a year, and never had a regular DS. I’ve got a copy of Radiant Historia that is just taunting me from the shelf, but I’m deep in a Monster Hunter hole on the 3DS right now.

      I stand by Dark Souls as the single greatest video game I’ve ever played as an adult. Bioshock: Infinite had a story that was unparalleled, but as a complete gaming experience, Dark Souls is in my top three games of all time. It is a masterwork.

  6. Avatar C.Hill says:

    I always had a soft spot for a relatively unknown game, Dungeon Siege 2. It was my first foray into NOT having classes, simply weapon types and skills.

    And of course Zelda is up there. 🙂

  7. Avatar A.E. Marling says:

    The Quest for Glory games were a delight. I particularly loved QFG 4, the edition with voice actors. John Rhys-Davies was the narrator, and I was is aural bliss.

  8. Avatar Zack Matzo (@perch15) says:

    Another game that almost made the list was BEYOND ZORK. It was a completely text-based RPG/dungeon crawler that I played on an old Apple IIgs. It was PHENOMENAL.

  9. Avatar Jaedia says:

    I’ve only really played modern games so my votes would have to go for Guild Wars 2 being my favourite fantasy MMO, Risen, Dragon Age, and Elder Scrolls: Oblivion. Oh and Ni No Kuni which is a gorgeous little game. I have yet to play a Final Fantasy or Zelda game.

  10. Avatar LK901 says:

    I think NetHack and ADOM should be on the list. Brilliant roguelike dungeoncrawlers with a fantasy setting,

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