There are role-playing franchises that seem to last forever, like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. Then there are the RPG franchises that fade away and die. That some franchises can survive as long as they do in an industry as unstable as video games shouldn’t be taken for granted. So much can go wrong; each new installment is a roll of the dice on if consumers will purchase enough copies for the series to survive. Studios close, publishers interfere and enforce impossible deadlines, creators leave, or consumers simply do not show the interest required to make a sequel viable. Fans can continue to shower their favorite series with love and affection, but sometimes things just go wrong.
Earlier this month Microsoft announced the cancellation of Fable Legends and the proposed closure of Lionhead Studios. Though nobody has officially announced that Fable is over forever, there are no new Fable games in development, and the future of the series is deeply in doubt. This is a hard blow to fans who have not had a true Fable title in the spirit of the original RPG since 2010’s Fable III.
Peter Molyneux left Lionhead years ago, leaving the Fable franchise without its main champion to provide continuity or focus. Microsoft abandoned the strategic fantasy life-sim gameplay that was the series’ identity in order to make curiosities and experiments with Free to Play or the Kinect.
Fable may be born again with a reboot, but as of this writing, we can write “Fable: 2004 – 2016” on its metaphoric tombstone. It was not the first RPG franchise to end this way, and it will not be the last.
Here is a list of five other great defunct RPG franchises that have died out or gone on permanent hiatus over the years.
Suikoden (1998 – 2012)
What Was It?
Suikoden was Konami’s attempt to create a flagship RPG series to rival Square’s Final Fantasy and Enix’s Dragon Quest franchises. It was created by Yoshitaka Murayama, a young fresh-faced programmer who arrived at Konami’s Tokyo headquarters full of ideas and ambition. 1995’s Suikoden was partially inspired by the medieval Chinese novel, The Water Margin, an epic tale of honor and martial valor where 108 heroes would come together in great battles. While older RPGs had tried for large casts, such as Final Fantasy VI‘s impressive 16-character roster, Suikoden would use the processing power of the PlayStation to create a massive RPG with its own 108 playable characters.
While other games of the time took advantage of 3D technology and full-motion videos to tell wild new stories, Suikoden stuck with 2D sprites and traditional turn-based combat. That became a hallmark of the series: keeping the gameplay simple while focusing most of the energy on the story. Suikoden offered incredibly detailed worlds with stories full of great battles inspired by Eastern literature.
Suikoden II is largely considered the high-water mark for the franchise. It was in fact the original story that Murayama had wanted to tell when he pitched the concept to Konami. He decided to hold back and instead tell a prequel in the original Suikoden while he figured out how the game would work. Suikoden II has a far more ambitious story, featuring one of the most evil villains in all of role-playing, Luca Bright, a madman who requires an epic three-stage boss battle to overcome.
While Suikoden II did not significantly improve upon the graphics or the mechanics of the original, it was a beloved title. The games did eventually move on to 3D graphics and full voice acting for their PS2 releases. Other Suikoden games would dabble in strategy RPG elements, and there was even a whole strategy RPG spin-off, Suikoden Tactics. Eventually the series reached five fully-numbered installments with plenty of spin-offs.
What Killed It?
Even the most popular Suikoden games were unable to sell more than a million copies, so the the original idea of building an RPG franchise that could take on Final Fantasy soon became hopeless. In the early 2000s, JRPGs were immensely popular, so the series continued on even after Yoshitaka Murayama left following the release of Suikoden III in 2002.
As console game development costs rose, the series was slowly transitioned over to handheld systems, with the last game, Genso Suikoden, released on the PlayStation Portable in 2012. That game was never released outside Japan. Other than the re-releases of the first three Suikoden games on PSN last year, Konami has been relatively silent about the series. For now, it appears the franchise is no more.
The Chrono Series (1995 – 2000)
What Was It?
The Chrono series began with the meeting of a “Dream Team” of RPG creators from pre-merger Square and Enix. They included Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy, Yuji Horii, the creator of Dragon Quest, and Akira Toriyama, artist of Dragon Quest. They worked alongside lesser known talents like writer Masato Kato and composer Yasunori Mitsudo, who created the game’s score with Final Fantasy’s composer, Nobuo Uematsu. The game they created was 1995’s Chrono Trigger, one of the greatest RPGs of all time.
Chrono Trigger is a simple game to describe: it’s a time traveling JRPG. The heroes discover that in the future their world will be destroyed by an alien creature named Lavos, and go on an adventure from prehistoric times to a cyberpunk dystopian future uncover Lavos’ origins and attempt to stop him.Along the way they see entire civilizations fall, species destroyed, and families broken. However, with the power of time travel, teamwork, and a simple but extremely elegant battle system, they are able to save the day.
It was a bright, hopeful game, with the overall theme being that the heroes could overcome anything. Masato Kato was able to contrast the bright tones and silly Akira Toriyama designs with a deep story with complicated plot twists and turns.
What Killed It?
A dream team is exactly that: a dream. It was simply unfeasible to ever pull together the kind of talent that had created Chrono Trigger again. Most of the staff had their own RPG franchises to manage. That left Masato Kato alone to decide the future of the Chrono series. The first sign that the series would take a wild new direction was the Super Famicom Satellaview game (essentially a very crude version of early ’90s downloadable gaming that was exclusive to Japan), Radical Dreamers. This text-based adventure simulated what could have been the first dungeon of a full RPG, until the story abruptly ends on a cliffhanger. The connections to Chrono Trigger are tenuous and vague, and the story is considerably moodier than the original title.
Kato returned as a full director to his Radical Dreamers ideas in 1999 for a full PlayStation release. This would use all of the FMV and 3D technology that Square had learned in their recent smash hit, Final Fantasy VII. That game was not Chrono Trigger 2 but Chrono Cross, a very different game in style and tone. While Chrono Trigger was about saving the future, Chrono Cross was about the inevitability of fate. The new heroes would have to deal with the repercussions of tampering with the world’s timeline in the first game. The fate of the original cast is left unsaid, but several are implied to have met terrible ends.
Trigger was tightly designed and simple, but Cross was a byzantine mixture of game designs and baroque experimental concepts. In the late ’90s, Square RPG development had become a madhouse of radical RPG concepts, with seemingly every member of the team coming up with some new untested mechanic. Cross was no different, with its systems taking hours to understand. Not only is the game hard to master, the plot is infinitely more complicated. While still a fascinating game beloved by fans, Chrono Cross had a fraction of the impact of its predecessor.
In 2001, Square registered a trademark for Chrono Break, a potential new game in the series. Nothing was officially announced and no game was ever made. Though fan interest in the series remains high, as evidenced by several high profile fan sequel attempts (all squashed by Square Enix), it appears that Chrono Cross simply did not sell well enough to continue the series. In 2009, Square Enix Senior Vice President Shinji Hashimoto remarked, “If people want a sequel, they should buy more!” Masato Kato was never given a project the scale of Chrono Cross again, and returned to working as a writer. Ports and re-releases of Chrono Trigger continue to come out, but hopes for a sequel remain in the realm of internet lists and fan dreams.
Ogre Battle (1993 – 2010)
What Was It?
Ogre Battle was a series of strategy RPGs based on European medieval conflicts. It was the brainchild of Yasumi Matsuno and his development team at Quest. Matsuno’s games were built on authentic political complexity and a fantastic sense of world. Other RPGs just ask you to save the world, these games ask the harder question of how to fix damaged countries with divided populations.
The first game, Ogre Battle: March of the Black Queen was a mixture of RTS and turn-based RPG gameplay. The gameplay was built around the idea of simulating a fantasy medieval army, conducting battles relying on strategy and positioning for victory. Ogre Battle had unique concepts like multiple endings, branching stories, and a morality system based on Law and Chaos, which created more interesting moral dilemmas than the Western RPG preference for basic Good vs. Evil. This game was followed up by the even bigger and better Ogre Battle 64, probably the best game of its genre on the RPG-starved Nintendo 64.
However, it is Ogre Battle‘s other sequel, 1994’s Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together that is probably the most beloved game in the series. This game ditched the RTS elements to create a pure Tactical RPG, similar to the earlier Fire Emblem games. But unlike Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre‘s level design was built with three dimensions in mind, meaning smaller battles with fewer units, but more interesting gameplay based on the terrain and hills. Archers could snipe units across the map if standing on peaks and units gained advantages if they had the high ground. Tactics Ogre had a more personal story based around a brother and sister trying to save their people in the midst of a brutal ethnic conflict which Matsuno based on the early ’90s wars in Yugoslavia. Tactics Ogre‘s style would go on to inspire games like Disgaea, Jeanne d’Arc, and Matsuno’s own Final Fantasy Tactics.
What Killed It?
Final Fantasy ate Ogre Battle. In 1995 Yasumi Matsuno left Quest for Square. Two years later came Final Fantasy Tactics, a direct translation of Ogre Battle’s political style and darker tone, but with Chocobos. You have your traditional Black Mages and Dragoons intermingled with a plot about class warfare, sexual violence, and constant betrayal on all sides.
Final Fantasy Tactics began a sub-series in the Final Fantasy universe that takes place in a world known as Ivalice, which would be the setting for games like Final Fantasy Tactics Advance and even a fully numbered installment, Final Fantasy XII.
In 2002 Quest was purchased outright, reuniting the Ogre Battle team. They were able to finish one last Ogre Battle game: Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis, a miniature Gaiden game of Tactics Ogre on the GBA.
In 2010, Ogre Battle had one last gasp of air with the release of a PSP remake of Tactics Ogre, allowing another generation of fans to experience one of the greatest strategy RPGs of all time. Since then, however, Ogre Battle has disappeared.
Mother/EarthBound (1989 – 2006)
What Was It?
The Mother series was born in 1989 when the first game, known as EarthBound Beginnings in the West, was created not by an established video game designer, or even a programmer, but by Japanese copywriter and essayist, Shigesato Itoi. The concept behind the game was to set a Dragon Quest-inspired RPG not in some distant Tolkien-esque fantasy kingdom or the distant sci-fi future, but rather in the modern United States – or at least the United States that Itoi had seen on TV. The main character is a little boy living in a cartoony interpretation of a Norman Rockwell-esque town, who goes on an adventure once every random appliance and object
The main character is a little boy living in a cartoony interpretation of a Norman Rockwell-esque town, who goes on an adventure after being attacked by objects in his home. He learns that his family is actually full of psychics, and the world is a lot weirder than he could have ever imagined. He and his little friends go on a bizarre journey across Itoi’s world full of fourth wall breaks, pop culture references, and the occasional poop joke.
The most recognizable game in the series — at least to Western audiences — is Mother 2 on the Super Famicom, known as EarthBound here in North America. This is a bigger and better version of the original game, with production assistance from the late Satoru Iwata. The plot was generally a remake of the first game, once again starring a little boy, Ness, who travels with his friends on a semi-nonsensical path through the game. Eventually Ness and friends fight the evil alien from the first game, Giegue. He’s a lot more twisted and evil than before, with one of the most disturbing final boss designs in video game history.
Itoi brought several innovations to the sequel. Instead of random encounters, enemies appeared on screen. Attacks slowly decreased HP, meaning characters could survive fatal hits for a little while to continue fighting. And while the opening level of EarthBound is still difficult, it isn’t nearly as difficult as the soul crushing difficulty of Mother 1, where one can easily get a “Game Over” just trying to leave their house for the first time.
What Killed It?
EarthBound was given a major push for its 1995 North American localization. It was one of the last major Super Nintendo titles before the release of the Nintendo 64, so if it was successful it could help bridge the gap between consoles. The game was marketed with the infamous slogan “This game stinks!” Unfortunately, EarthBound flopped in the country of its inspiration. It was a failure so great that Europe never saw the game at all. The series would not see another official release in the West for decades.
Mother 3 was originally planned for the Nintendo 64, but the difficulties with that console and plenty of bad luck killed that project. Nintendo wanted Mother 3 to be a showcase for their new 64DD add-on for the Nintendo 64, but that peripheral was a commercial failure and was never released outside of Japan. Instead, the hero of EarthBound, Ness, would get a pity placement as a secret character in Super Smash Bros. where he continues to fight, representing his obscure series to this day. After twelve years of development on several platforms,
After twelve years of development on several platforms, Mother 3 was finally released in 2006 on the GameBoy Advance. It was a commercial and critical success, and still managed to carry over some of the ideas of Itoi’s highly ambitious plans for the 3D version. While fan reaction was extremely positive, to the point that Mother 3 has become a thing of legend among Western RPG fans, Nintendo still has never released the game in North America. (Though crafty fans can easily find a fan translation online.) There is some hope though, with the original Mother getting released as EarthBound Beginnings for the WiiU Virtual Console.
However, Mother’s true ending had nothing to do with Western releases. Shigesato Itoi has not shown any interest in future games, perhaps feeling that the series has reached its logical end. Mother 3 was his final project with Nintendo, and since then, there has not even been so much as a rumor of Mother 4. This is perhaps the best ending a series can hope for: accomplishing everything its creator set out to do. Fans of the series will just have to suffice with its many spiritual sequels, such as last year’s indie smash, Undertale.
Ultima (1981 – 1999)
What Was It?
Ultima and its rival, Wizardry, are the granddaddies of all modern RPGs. The original Ultima was an evolution of Richard Garriott’s teenage experiments to translate a Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing experience onto computers. His prototype game, Alkalabeth proved that concepts like stats, dungeons, towns, NPCs, and character creation could all work in a video game.
This was the Dark Ages of gaming, when video games could be made by a team of just two college freshmen fiddling around in Assembly and BASIC. Ultima‘s plot is a bare-bones adventure where the hero steps into a fantasy world that is being threatened by an evil wizard, goes through some dungeons to gain stats, and then kills that wizard. Also there’s a space battle at the end because it was 1981 and Star Wars ruled the nerd universe.
Though the stories were basic, and even in the latter installments the plots and characters were still crude, Ultima was hugely influential. It was a very early experiment in trying to create real world lessons from what were basically just sprite-based D&D campaigns played on a keyboard (mouse controls would come later, that’s how old this series is). Ultima games appeared on every home console of the 1980s, from the Atari to the NES. The spin-off game,
Ultima games appeared on every home console of the 1980s, from the Atari to the NES. The spin-off game, Ultima Underworld, was one of the very first games to use true 3D environments, a massive achievement in 1992. It would go on to inspire System Shock. Along with Wizardry, Ultima was the main inspiration for Yuji Horii’s Dragon Quest, which would in turn launch the genre of JRPGs.
Steadily, Richard Garriott’s series grew with each installment. He was able to use his profits from the first two games to found Origin Systems, perhaps the greatest computer game studio of the ’80s and ’90s. Ultima grew from a simple dungeon crawler into an entire universe with its own established lore and characters. Garriott’s author avatar, Lord British, went from just a minor NPC to the king of a great nation, Britannia, with its own religion, the Eight Virtues.
These Eight Virtues were founded by none other than you, the player avatar, known creatively as “the Avatar.” As you continued to save Britannia from various evil, your standing in the world grew from legendary hero to the scion of an entire faith. The series became a sophisticated moral musing on the meanings of these Eight Virtues, as villains attempted to set up their own rival religions or subvert them by pushing them to violent extremes. 1992′ Ultima VII: The Black Gate was the pinnacle for the series, an epic quest of such length that it was split into two parts, with the sequel, Ultima VII Part Two: Serpent Isle, released in 1993. This game took the Avatar on perhaps his greatest quest, a journey to stabilize the very fabric of reality from the ultimate evil of the universe, the Guardian.
What Killed It?
Ultima was killed by two games. One was the most successful game that Richard Garriott would ever make, the other was one of his worst disasters ever. The downfall of Ultima began in 1987 when Origin Systems was purchased by a young Electronic Arts, which initially had a very hands-off approach to game development. But by the mid-’90s, Garriott’s schedules kept slipping and EA had enough. Ultima VIII: Pagan was released largely unfinished, with much of its story and controls cut to fit an early release date. It was released with various glaring plot holes and an almost unplayable isometric platforming system. EA, displeased by the poor sales of Pagan, became more involved with the development of the series.
Still, Garriott was able to continue to innovate the series. Despite EA’s initial disinterest in the project, he released Ultima Online, one of the very first MMORPGs. Gamers from around the world could log on and play their characters in a shared environment, the success of which launched a whole new genre of RPGs. It was not long before Ultima Online turned a profit, enough for Richard Garriott to pay for a ticket into outer space with the Russian Space Agency.
While EA became interested in the new Online project, Ultima IX: Ascension was going through development hell, as it bounced between four different versions and had to deal with the awkward growing pains of adapting to 3D graphics. Directors came and went from the project, until EA got tired of waiting and pushedit out the door. Ultima IX was a buggy disaster. It was simply a poorly made title thrown together from various failed versions in order to satisfy a deadline. It was one of the biggest failures in RPG history, and Ultima died nearly overnight.
With Ultima Online still proving to be profitable for EA, Origin Systems was largely cannibalized to support that title. Garriott left the company, taking with him any hope for Ultima X. EA would eventually repackage the Ultima name for various free to play games in the 2010s, but they were hollow imitations, Ultima in name-only.
However, hope remains, as two spiritual successor projects have both been crowdfunded and are in development today: Underworld Ascendant, a sequel to the Ultima Underworld games, and Richard Garriott’s own Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues, perhaps the first true sequel Ultima has seen since before the turn of the century. Maybe with these titles, Ultima can have a true happy ending.
Though many series reach unfortunate endings before their time, many RPGs come back from the dead. It appeared that the X-COM games were fully defunct, but recently they have seen a major revival of interest and major new releases. Wizardry’s original team stopping producing new titles in 2002 with Wizardry 8, but Japanese fans have kept the series alive with releases continuing to this day. Baldur’s Gate has not seen a full new release for decades, but its new studio, Overhaul Games, has released a remake of the original game and a new expansion is due to be released this very month. Even the incredibly obscure Langrisser series just had a new entry with Langrisser Re:Incarnation coming out in Japan last year, and due to be released in the West this year.
There is no reason to bury any defunct franchise. At worst, they are merely dormant, just waiting for the next revival. If there is a demand for games like Fable I-III, they will eventually be made.