It looks like the quality of games in Retro Sanctuary's Top 100 PS1 games list is starting to be more consistent right at the halfway mark (games 60 to 51). Sure, there is still the questionable inclusion of games that are better on the PC (Exhumed and X-Com), but the majority of the choices here are a combination of both very good and important games, even if most are from genres that have improved beyond what we see here. My biggest criticism of these options is the low position of Suikoden II in the overall list. In my opinion, considering both its objective quality and how it aged much better than many games on the PS1, it is a game that is easily among the top games of the PS1. In fact, I would put it in my Top 10 list, and that's by virtue of it being one of the best, if not the best RPG on the system.
As for the other games on the list, I only reviewed the Tenchu and Tomba games, and you can read why I think they are very good PS1 games in my reviews. From the games I didn't review, the highlights are Dead or Alive and Soul Blade; both are important and very competent 3D Fighting games that started important franchises that went on to easily surpass them. Also, a shout out to Spider-Man, which is one of the better licensed-games on the system. The rest are a combination of technically impressive games that just aren't as impressive now or lesser ports of better PC games, although TOCA remains a solid racing game. Read my thoughts below.
60(S)- Suikoden (1995, 1996):
As one of the first JRPGs on the PS1, Suikoden took an opposite path to the rest of its peers. Instead of chasing the dream of a pseudo-realistic 3D world, it instead opted to keep on improving 2D art, making bigger and more detailed sprites, and focusing on improvement rather than revolution. If it was just another JRPG with amazing 2D artwork, Suikoden would still have been remembered fondly. However, it was much more than that, and that's why it hurts to this day that this franchise went extinct.
The Suikoden games are inspired by one of the Chinese classics, namely the Water Margin. Like with that novel, 108 heroes come together in a rebellion to restore justice to the land. The story is more grounded with realistic conflicts and stakes, and that allows for the magical bits to resonate even more. And these magical bits, featuring magical semi-sentient ruins that govern the world, are really cool with a lot of storytelling potential.
Since it's the first in its series, this game needed to develop both the feeling and central hooks of the franchise, and damn does it do it well. Starting with an interesting conflict where the Empire's lead general's son joins (and eventually leads) the rebellion, you know that the story has serious stakes. Following the Water Margin's lead, you can then opt to recruit around 108 characters (about 30+ of them automatically join) all with their own goals and personalities, and see how they contribute to developing your army and base of operations. The game also introduces elements that are fleshed out more in later entries, such as strategic battles between opposing armies and duels.
So, with a focus on character collection, some cool and snappy combat system, and a really good story, this is an excellent beginning for the series. It's also surprisingly breezy and short given the amount of optional stuff you could do.
60- Suikoden 2 (1998, 1999):
If the first game did an excellent job introducing the series, then the second game did an even better showcasing the massive heights it could reach. Simply put, Suikoden II is one of the best games on the PS1, and just by looking at how it aged, is probably the best RPG on the system. That's high praise, so let's temper it with some minor criticism first. No matter how you look at it, the localization of the game is pretty weak, with poor sentence structure, outright errors, and omissions of key plot details that would have elevated the story a bit more. It is then telling that even with then, the weak localization the game's story is celebrated so much.
With a story that features a believable conflict between two allies, a legendary evil warlord like Luca Blight (who I would argue is not actually the most evil character in the game), and tens of other cool characters and storylines, this game is really something else. It has political intrigue in spades, but also a strong human core that allows you to grow attached to these characters in a way that other cliched stories of the time wouldn't do to me. Also, there is just enough room for your imagination to fill in the gap that everyone may experience the game's story slightly differently.
Supporting the excellent story is what is perhaps the culmination of the PS1 beautiful graphical abilities. I say that not because the game's graphics are technically impressive, but because they look gorgeous even today. The sprite work on more than 108 characters is amazing, which pops even more when you see the varied combat animations. This almost fighting-game level work in the graphical department, which when coupled with a unique and exotic score gives the world of Suikoden II a strong basis of reality.
Thankfully, the game's strength continues with its gameplay, which is as snappy and simple as it is open for experimentation. With a lot of characters to choose from, as well as magical ruins you can equip to each of them, there are literally millions of possible combinations you can go for with your party.
This is just a great game, and every time I think about it, I am sad that the series is now dead. Here is hoping Eiyuden Chronicle manages to build something similar for the future.
Designed and directed by a previous Capcom visionary, Tomba! was meant to be a unique game that defies description. While ostensibly being an Action-Platformer, it also included several RPG and Adventure game elements that it is closer to describe it as a 2D Legend of Zelda than anything else.
So, in effect, the game does succeed in being a unique genre-defying title, which partially explains its critical acclaim and cult-favorite status. However, in playing it years later, it has several pacing and direction issues that are difficult to ignore, and these flaws do keep it from becoming the masterpiece that it's designed to be. Flaws in its mechanical execution, as well as the cryptic drip-feed of events and lack of signposting meant the game just had too much backtracking to be consistently fun, which I seriously hope was fixed in the sequel.
That, coupled with some hitbox issues stopped Tomba! from becoming a masterpiece. Yet, the lessons learned and the experience the team gained rectified much of that with the sequel.
The first Tomba! was a genre-bending game that had a lot of great ideas in combining Action Platforming mechanics with Adventure game concepts to make an entirely unique game. It succeeded at that, but it also had its share of flaws, in mechanics, pace, and direction.
Thankfully, the concept didn't die with the first game, and the team had their chance to correct most of the first's flaws with a much better second game.
It's understandable that these games have a certain cult-favorite reputation, with their unique genre-bending gameplay, game concepts, and art direction. On the strength of the games, this reputation is much deserved, especially when it comes to Tomba! 2.
Despite some issues with graphical and mechanical jank, some of the same pacing issues as the first game, and a small penchant for repetition, this is still a massively charmingly unique game that is worth a try for any PS1 fan.
58- Dead or Alive (1997):
Capitalizing on the success of other 3D fighting games like Virtua Fighter and Tekken, Tecom and Team Ninja decided to make a 3D Fighter of their own, but one with a focus on boobs... I meant one with a focus on countering. Actually, I may have been right the first time. There is no mistake that Dead or Alive was designed with a clear and unmistakable focus on the sex appeal of its main female character. Hell, one of the game's core innovations is its ungainly breast physics.
Kasumi, Lei-Feng, Tina, and Ayane were all designed with bouncy mammaries, revealing clothes, and extremely capable fighting styles. After all, this is a fighting game and a surprisingly good one at that. With a focus on quick and damaging hits as well as innovative counter grab mechanics, fights are technical, fast, and engaging. While it being a 3D game doesn't have as much of a mechanical influence as Tekken and Virtua Fighter, it does allow for the aforementioned boob physics.
So, Dead or Alive is more than a competent fighter with some unique design sensibilities and relatively good 3D graphics. For one thing, it established the foundation for two more competent sequels on the Arcades and PS2, and even if the first game doesn't have any plot to speak off, it does have some nice female-on-female action.
The advent of the PS1 and 3D gaming lead to new ambitious and creative developers entering the field, and as they crowded each other in an established market, it was clear that successful games from non-established franchises needed something creative and interesting to differentiate them.
Enter Tenchu, which probably is the first successful implementation of Stealth Action gameplay in a 3D space. From its stealth-centric gameplay, the Sengoku era Ninja setting sprung through. It succeeded and cemented Acquire as a full-fledged developer to this day.
Yet, as can be seen from Metal Gear Solid just six months later, the many technical difficulties that Tenchu couldn't solve drag it considerably down, and it exists more as an interesting relic today than the cutting edge masterpiece that it may have been at its release. There is no doubt in my mind that Tenchu was a great game in its time. It was a unique and revolutionary step forward for 3D gaming and its own genre, and it worked really well considering the limitations of the time. Yet, due to its pioneering nature, the advances made to its formula are more apparent and render it less fun as a result.
Yet, we can still appreciate it for its historical importance, and an honestly sublime soundtrack.
The PS1 era saw the birth of many new franchises in gaming and a common trend between many of them is how the first game introduced core concepts and ideas that the sequel then improved upon and elevated to new rights. In many ways, Tenchu 2 looks like it follows that trend. With improved mechanics, improved mission structure, and a more focus on narrative than the original.
Yet, the game also inexplicably takes as many steps back as forward. It has a less varied mission structure, and its PS1 visuals are not saved by the good design and art direction of the first game. Most criminally, there is no soundtrack in the game's levels unlike the excellent soundscape of the original.
As such, Tenchu 2 ends up in exactly the same position as its predecessor, but with entirely different weaknesses and strengths. Tenchu 2 takes a major step forward with its gameplay mechanics and focuses on the story. It's narratively tighter while being more pleasant to play, even if the level structure is a bit repetitive. At least the core mechanics are fun to control.
If it added that aspect on top of the first game with the slightest of graphical upgrades, then it would have been an obviously superior sequel. Yet, it also decided to take some step backs in its art design with some notable graphical downgrades in textures and some character faces as a result. Most damaging was the decision not to follow the first game's excellent soundtrack and instead opt for a purely atmospheric score.
For these reasons, Tenchu 2 fails at being a better sequel and instead works as a weird kind of sidestep, the kind that nearly thrust you into the vision of an enemy.
56- PowerSlave (1997):
PowerSlave, also known as Exhumed in Europe, was a Doom-like FPS but with more adventure elements and a permanent upgrades system. It was considered a really good example of the genre at the time, and true to the genre, it controlled better with a Keyboard and Mouse than with controllers.
As such, this is another game in the genre that occupies a curious spot in Retro Sanctuary's top 100 PS1 games list. Hell, even if we grade the game by its merits, then the excessive backtracking, small pool of weapons, and generally boring structure would work against it. A relic of the times.
55- TOCA: Touring Car Championship (1997, 1998):
As one of the mid-period PS1 racing games, the first TOCA game was a technical showpiece, with very good graphics, decent draw distances, and smooth driving mechanics. While it didn't have the customization or story aspects of the leading racing games on the consoles, it got the basics right and the driving feels really good.
Just a year later, a sequel with slight iterative improvements was released, and that game simply supplanted the first without any drastic changes. The driving in these games is still fun, even playing it now after the many improvements of the genre over the years.
54- Spider-Man (2000):
This is actually one of the best, if not the best, superhero games on the PS1. While the system didn't have the technology for the city-traversal web-swinging action that would later feature in the PS2 games, this game instead focuses on tight in-door action gameplay and a good adaptation of the Carnage storyline.
While it is true that the faithful voice acting and character showcases of the many Spider-Man characters is the main feature of the game, the action is equally as good. Spidey has a lot of ways to incorporate his web in battle, swing around, and even successfully sneak around. Also, his spider-sense allowed for some solid counter-actions.
Also, the game has one of the goofiest depictions of Venom in video games, and that was always a plus in my book.
53- Soul Blade (1996, 1997):
This is the first game in the renowned Soul Calibur series, and it starts it really strongly. Having already got a grasp on 3D fighters with the first two Tekken games, Namco already had a grasp on the genre and so were ready to make a different kind of game with Soul Blade. Basically, this is a 3D Fighter with weapons and a ring-out system. Technically, the game plays differently from Tekken with a focus on zoning, proper distance management, guard counters, and massive damage potential with few hits rather than with combos and juggling mechanics.
So, learning from experience, the series immediately starts with a bang. Graphically, it looks great for its time and animates smoothly as well. It also has a great soundtrack. From a gameplay perspective, it plays smoothly, has a lot of depth to its core mechanics, and also has plenty of modes to keep you busy along with a story mode.
Generally, I think Namco was heads and shoulders above their fighting game competitors with their focus on characters through their story modes, and even though it's pretty basic (especially compared to its own sequels), Soul Blade still gives its interestingly designed characters a mode to grow.
Soul Blade was an impressive first step to a series that would make two masterful sequels on the PS2 with Soul Calibur I&II.
52- Colony Wars: Vengeance (1998):
The Colony Wars series started and ended on the PS1. It was a Space Combat Simulator series that pushed the console to its technical limits but honestly didn't provide the most compelling gameplay experience in my opinion. You usually control a small fighting ship in space and move in 3D space fulfilling specific mission objectives. Being in space, spatial awareness, and understanding the readings of your radar is important, and you have many resources to manage as you fight the enemy ships.
However, while it looks great and is technically impressive, the experience is a bit hollow when compared to Arcade space shooters like Starfox 64, and is not strategic enough for hardcore Space Simulation fans.
One aspect that is very good through all three Colony Wars games is the multiple endings that you can get through the effectiveness of your mission performance.
51- X-Com: Terror from the Deep (1996):
Here is another Strategy game with a better home on PCs. X-Com: Terror from the Deep is an undoubtedly brilliant game, albeit one that is also sometimes extremely unfair and brutally difficult, but it played better on the PC than the PS1 and even has an enhanced port released two years later.
Yet, given the light Real-Time strategy elements in the game and the focus on Turn-Based tactic battles, the game is at least playable and enjoyable to a certain level on the PS1 despite it not being the optimal way to play the game.
This report is a consolidated review of the top 100 list by Retro Sanctuary. It features the reviews I made for the list but also has a brief paragraph about each game on the list that I didn't review. For games without an official review, the opinions I express are purely based on some little playing time and general research about the game and its reception at the time.
In case anyone wants to argue that sex appeal is not one of the main drivers of Dead or Alive