We need more ports of PS1 RPGs to modern systems

I absolutely adore the PS1 era of gaming — particularly its RPGs. But with the glitz and spectacle of today’s best titles, it’s sometimes easy to forget about their charms.

Last night, the wife and I thought we’d settle down and have a quiet evening with her doing some knitting and me playing a game that she didn’t mind watching. I figured that I’d start something new, since in my free time I’d just polished off Destiny Connect and was pondering what to give a go next. I quickly settled on Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure from Prinny Presents NIS Classics vol. 3.

Rhapsody on PS1
Rhapsody (PS1)

Rhapsody, for the unfamiliar, is a Nintendo Switch (and PC) port of one of Nippon Ichi Software’s earlier games. First released in 1998 for PS1, it is, in many ways, a textbook PS1 RPG. Beautiful hand-drawn backdrops, lovely pixel art sprites moving around atop them, a catchy soundtrack, a charming and whimsical story, and a deliberate and obvious contrast to what western games were doing at the time.

Rhapsody is often pointed to as the origin point of Nippon Ichi’s later Disgaea series, primarily due to the fact that its combat sequences are lightweight strategy RPG affairs where characters can move around on an isometric grid, and attacks have both range and areas of effect. When I say lightweight, I mean lightweight, however; it’s a pretty easy game, and while the various battlefield do often have obstacles scattered around, you don’t need to worry about things like elevation.

Probably the most interesting thing about Rhapsody is that its “A Musical Adventure” subtitle isn’t just for show: the game is literally a musical. As in, at important story moments, the characters will often burst into song. They’re good songs, too — and, interestingly, it’s the English versions of the songs that appear to be the most fondly regarded worldwide, though you do have the option to hear the Japanese versions if you prefer.

Rhapsody (PS1)
Rhapsody (PS1)

This article isn’t really about Rhapsody, though; having only played just shy of three hours of it, I don’t feel completely qualified to talk in depth about it just yet. Instead, I want to talk a little about how the experience of playing the game made me feel, because while the game’s charming whimsy was definitely part of creating that feeling in myself, a more significant part was the distinctive look, feel and overall design of PS1 games.

I grew up with PS1 games, you see. While I was a child during my earlier days of gaming on the Atari 8-bit, Atari ST and Super NES platforms, I was a teenager when the PS1 arrived. I had a lot more independence at that point, and a lot more cash in my pocket (remember that?) to spend on the games that I was most interested in playing.

And for me as a teenager, “games that I was most interested in playing” translated almost exclusively to “all the RPGs I could eat”. In retrospect, given the price of PS1 RPGs today, I sincerely wish I’d held on to all the games I bought at that time, as they’d be worth a fucking fortune now.

Rhapsody for PS1 - battle scene
Rhapsody (PS1)

Interestingly, I never stumbled across Rhapsody at the time, since it never got a European release. I did have a few RPGs that came to North America but not Europe — most notably Square Enix titles like Xenogears, Parasite Eve and Brave Fencer Musashi, plus the two Lunar games — but I never came across Rhapsody. Which is a shame, because I suspect I would have absolutely adored it.

But it doesn’t matter, because I can enjoy it right now. And almost exactly from the moment I booted up the version on Prinny Presents NIS Classics vol. 3, I felt like a teenager again. There was something about this game that, right from the outset, just wanted to be liked. It wasn’t a game that felt like it was trying too hard to “retain users” or “monetise” — it was just a game whose creators felt like they had a clear creative vision, and all it wanted to do was express that. It felt sincere.

This feeling of sincerity is something I remember being struck with back when I first discovered RPGs on the PS1. I picked up Final Fantasy VII — the first RPG I ever played and truly understood — largely on the grounds that my brother (who had been working in the games press for a while at that point) described it as “the first game he’d seen actually make someone cry”. It made me cry, too. And from that point onwards, there was no turning back for me.

Final Fantasy VII for PS1 - Cloud meets Aerith
Final Fantasy VII (PS1)

I played countless RPGs on PS1, some of which have remained well-known, others of which have fallen into obscurity, and had an absolutely wonderful time. In retrospect, it was a truly defining era of gaming for me — and playing Rhapsody for a few hours last night reminded me exactly why I have always loved this type of game so much, even though Rhapsody is not one of the games I played “back in the day”.

Now, having discovered this, I am excited to play some more of today’s PS1 ports that have made it to modern systems. Chrono Cross. SaGa Frontier. Legend of Mana. But I also want more. There’s lots of scope for more. And I’m not talking about unnecessary remakes — I’m talking about straight-up ports, just like Rhapsody. Maybe polish up the odd bits and pieces like load times, but otherwise leave them completely intact. The port of Rhapsody doesn’t even increase the colour depth, and I absolutely love that; part of the PlayStation’s distinctive look was dithering, and even that is kept completely intact in Rhapsody.

Rereleasing these classics makes a ton of sense from a variety of perspectives. Firstly, it allows people like me to wallow in nostalgia like the sad old men we are. Secondly, it opens up these classic games to a whole new audience — doubly so if the new versions get a worldwide release when previously Europe was excluded. Thirdly, it gives a firm middle finger to the exorbitant prices retro game resellers charge for these games in their original forms today. And fourthly, it emphasises a point that we should hopefully already be well familiar with by now: a good game is truly timeless, regardless of its technical specifications.

Brave Fencer Musashi for PS1
Brave Fencer Musashi (PS1)

So as far as my personal wishlist goes? Some of these are far more likely than others, but I’d love to see the aforementioned Xenogears, Brave Fencer Musashi and Parasite Eve, plus The Granstream Saga (spiritual successor to Soul Blazer, Illusion of Gaia and Terranigma, for the unfamiliar), the earlier Star Ocean games (particularly The Second Story, a personal favourite), SaGa Frontier 2, Koudelka, Breath of Fire III and IV, the two Lunars, Wild Arms 1 and 2, Persona 1 and 2 (both parts), Threads of Fate and Legend of Legaia.

And yes, I know some of these have previously had downloadable releases via PSN. But I’m talking about proper rereleases that aren’t buried in the depths of a digital store. Packaged releases — Asia-English only if need be, as the pattern seems to be these days — that we can have proudly and delightedly on our shelves. Rereleases that give these classics the respect they deserve — and make them as accessible as they deserve to be.

Here’s hoping the few we’ve had to date are just the beginning of what proves to be an ongoing trend!

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Pete Davison
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