Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 35, Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber
This game wasn't beloved just because the N64 was starving for RPGs.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is overflowing with fascinating systems. It’s a strategy role-playing game, but it’s not turn-based: it’s real-time. While you can choose certain options in battles, they’re mostly fought automatically. You essentially pick a direction or destination on the map, one that encompasses a significant portion of the countryside that includes multiple castles and forts and towns, and let your characters roam free. You can divert, you can stop, you can decide on a new destination, but much of Ogre Battle 64’s systems are automated, once you hit go on them.
This makes it sound as if you aren’t doing much when playing, but that is untrue. Ogre Battle tasks you with focusing primarily on the strategy part of strategy RPG: you are organizing and recruiting multiple parties of up to five characters each, and can have 50 members of your army under your direct control. You have to change their class, equip them, decide on a leader, manage the individual parties themselves both in between and during battles, revive dead characters as necessary and as you’re able, recruit new members to your parties, and oh, and basically every decision you make in some way impacts an unseen “Chaos Frame” that basically judges your morality and the direction both the story and the ending will take. Certain characters will not be recruitable at all depending on where your Chaos Frame rests at that time, even.
It’s very involved in this regard for an N64-era game, and that’s part of why it’s still so impressive even in the present.
Saying that the first time you play Ogre Battle 64 is essentially a long tutorial isn’t quite right, because you can certainly pick up on plenty of systems and thrive within those systems well before you approach anything resembling the end of the game. But unless you’ve done some prior reading, the idea of the Chaos Frame isn’t obvious until after you’ve completed the game the first time, when your score is revealed and your first ending viewed. Of course, it’s not 2000 anymore, and massive guides exist to explain every single detail of the Chaos Frame to you these days, so if anything, it’s easier to play Ogre Battle 64 while understanding the weight of everything you’re doing now than it’s ever been before.
The short of it is that if you play in a bloodthirsty manner, killing every enemy in front of you and capturing every single town, you’re likely to be viewed as bloodthirsty through the perspective of the Chaos Frame and the world that sees you through that lens. You have to be more mindful of the kinds of characters you recruit and who is in charge of the parties that lead them, and also be mindful of whether those party members will be seen as liberators or conquerors when they approach a given town. If your troops, members of the revolutionary army, are viewed as liberators by the people of a particular locale, your Chaos Frame will improve, and more obviously moral character recruitment options will be available to you. If you’re more the conquering type, well, some shadier characters will be intrigued by you, but chances are good your revolutionary pals aren’t going to be quite so happy with you. The game is full of choices, large ones and small ones, and they all feed into this system that determines who will trust you, who will fight alongside you, and whether there is a place for you or not in the world after the revolution is at its end.
While you can’t see your own Chaos Frame during the game, the morality score of your individual parties can be viewed, as can the morality of a town on the map. Send a lawful unit (high Chaos Frame) to a lawful town, and it will be liberated. If you send a neutral or chaotic unit instead, it will be conquered, and your Chaos Frame lowered. Maybe the town is chaotic, and requires a chaotic unit to liberate, whereas a lawful unit would appear to be a conqueror. It’s also important you protect the towns you liberate, as if they are captured by enemy forces after you’ve already been there, your Chaos Frame will drop. And don’t even think about approaching neutral towns if you want to keep your Chaos Frame up.
Maybe you want your Chaos Frame lowered, for one reason or another: then you should do the opposite of everything said above. It’s certainly one way to play, and opens you up to different units and classes to play with, so it’s not a “bad” one either, even if your morality is. Though, prepare to eventually feel unsatisfied for your failure to reckon with your actions and the burden of their consequences. This entire game is based around consequences: you’re not going to escape them even if you manage to finish the story.
All of this Chaos Frame stuff makes sense within the theme of the game: this isn’t just some empty morality meter that goes up and down. The subtitle, “Person of Lordly Caliber,” is meant to ask you what a person of lordly caliber would do, how they would act, and to challenge what your notions of that might be. You play as Magnus, who has just graduated from the knight’s academy and is immediately given a meaningful role in the military, as graduates from military academies are. His father is famed, his education elite, and what he does with this pedigree and this knowledge he’s been given access to is up to you. It’s also something those in the world around Magnus are intrigued by, for good or bad, and is part of the central theme of the game.
Given Ogre Battle 64 is over two decades old, you can find writing that looks deeper at the story and what it means, how it compares to other JRPGs where revolution by the lordly class is at the center of the narrative, and so on. Ogre Battle 64, like so many other JRPGs focusing on revolution and uprising, eventually does introduce a supernatural element. Unlike in many other games, though, it’s not a replacement for the initial revolutionary spirit and reason to fight, but is better integrated into the plot, and acts as a metaphor for real-world forces and ideals. Take this analysis from Pete Leavitt at RPG Fan, for instance, who backs up all the ways this story works and resembles real-world revolutions with historical references to China, Russia, Haiti, and more:
Ogre Battle 64: Person of Lordly Caliber is an unusual game in many ways, not the least of which is subverting these story expectations while letting the player marinate in the suffering of the lower and working-class of Palatinus for practically the entire story — despite the acknowledgement of the supernatural. The point of the story is the plight of the people. The demons unleashed upon the land play a significant role in the details and provide texture, but Ogre Battle 64 never centers around demonic forces threatening the world. It makes sure from the beginning that the player understands it is a game about class warfare and the intricacies of unrest.
This plays into the critique leveled at many JRPGs that the existential threat overshadows the more relatable initial conflict. These elements are utilized here in a much more controlled manner that more closely reflects dirty tactics seen in history. It’s less an analogy for a nuclear bomb and more one for chemical warfare during World War 1. Much like that deadly gas, which, in addition to being horrific if used on the enemy, would kill friendly soldiers with a simple shift of the wind, Godeslas’ troops are unable to control these monsters. Many lose their lives when they turn on the soldiers instead of the revolutionaries, and now there is this genie that cannot be put back in the bottle. The underworld is now open, and the creeping threat of the monsters continues to grow.
Even with this revelation, Ogre Battle 64 never abandons its initial mission: tell a story about class conflict and oppression.
That whole piece is worth reading to understand just how much nuance and narrative and realism is contained within Ogre Battle 64, the script of which remains exceptional to this day, 20-plus years later, when expectations for story in a game are even higher than they used to be. I will say the actual localization loses something in the last bit of the game — I’ve got a friend who says you can pinpoint the moment where North American publisher Atlus realized they were behind schedule — but it’s only noticeable because of how incredibly well done everything was up to that point. The story and writing in the last sections aren’t bad, by any means, they’re just not quite as clean as what came before, and it shows because of the difference in quality.
Speaking of that localization, you might have noticed I said “North American publisher Atlus” about a game being ranked as one of the top 101 Nintendo games ever. That might initially seem like it goes against the point of this project, but I’ll explain. Ogre Battle 64 was developed by Quest, the company that created the entire Ogre series, and was published by Nintendo in Japan as a Nintendo 64 exclusive. However, Nintendo did not localize the game for audiences outside of Japan, which makes some measure of sense given the time frame we’re talking about in the N64’s life cycle and the scope of Ogre Battle 64’s localization needs. This is a branching-path game that can take 40-70 hours to complete depending on how you play it, and can go over 100 hours if you do everything there is to be done: there is a whole lot of script and dialogue and such to be localized. It’s also extremely niche, both historically and in the moment, a point backed up by the fact it sold just over 70,000 copies in North America, and it was released while Nintendo was getting its last major holiday slate of N64 titles out the door before the arrival of the GameCube the following year.
While you can be annoyed that Nintendo wouldn’t find the resources for it if for no other reason than genre representation on the system, it’s also understandable that they focused on Ogre Battle where it made sense for them to do so, and then licensed it out to Atlus from there to do the hard work of getting it to play on North American systems. While this ended up being the only game to make this list where this sort of system was in place, there were others I explored while researching and playing potential rankings that fit a similar bill: Ganbarion’s Pandora’s Tower was published in Japan and PAL regions by Nintendo for the Wii, but Xseed brought it to North America a couple of years later. Mistwalker’s The Last Story was published by Nintendo in Japan*, but again was published by Xseed in North America. For our purposes, and without needing to stretch the truth of things, those are all Nintendo games, as is Ogre Battle 64.
*If you’ve never played those games but they sound familiar, they were the other two “Operation Rainfall” Wii games fans clamored for the release of in North America aside from Xenoblade Chronicles. Xenoblade was published by Nintendo in North America, given its developer, Monolith Software, is a Nintendo subsidiary. (And also because it is leaps and bounds better than the other two games, which is meant to say more about the quality of Xenoblade than about Last Story or Pandora’s Tower.) While those two specifically didn’t make it, this list does have an upcoming game that released in Europe because of Nintendo but never made it to North America, as well as some Japanese exclusives that eventually made their way here in one form or another, so there are weird (but viable and necessary, in my opinion!) exceptions all over this list, that I hope enrich it and your own ideas of what you could be playing and enjoying.
Back to the game itself. The story is wonderful, a real classic of the genre, and the gameplay is involved and rewarding, even if it at first doesn’t seem inviting. You might need to play more than once to fully grasp the systems at play here, but it’s enjoyable well before you hit that point, and is good enough to merit being played multiple times, as well. (You can also, as I did to refresh myself before diving in for the first time in years, seek out the very robust GameFaqs conversations on the game and its systems, to get a head start on all of that.) Ogre Battle 64 first released in 2000 for the Nintendo 64 to real critical praise, but it also saw Virtual Console releases in 2010 for the Wii — which finally brought the game to regions besides North America and Japan — as well as in 2017 for the Wii U’s own Virtual Console.
Every time it has released, it’s been praised for its depth, its story, its characters, its engrossing nature. Not every JRPG stands the test of time like this one, but some of these slow-burn tactics games became classics for a reason. Usually, when you’re talking about Nintendo and tactics, you’re talking about Fire Emblem. Ogre Battle 64, though, is just as good, if not better, than most of those titles, which is saying something considering how many of those FE games you’ve seen (and are still yet to see) on this list.
It’s just one of those games, like, Final Fantasy III (now known worldwide as VI), or Fire Emblem: Genealogy of the Holy War, where it’s still a bit of a shock that it was as fully realized and as deep as it was, that it kept up with its impressive ambitions, even for someone like me who spends a whole lot of time playing fantastic games that released when I was still a kid. There is so much here, and no need for a from-the-ground-up remake like there was for Final Fantasy VII, or another go at a localization performed by frustrated fans like there was for Capcom’s Breath of Fire II.
Most people didn’t play Ogre Battle 64 not just because it was niche, but because it was only available in limited quantities in the first place. It’s still available in limited quantities, I guess, since the Wii Shop is shut down and the Wii U only sold well when compared to other systems that failed harder, but if you can find a way to play it, you should. It’s a stunning achievement for the time that continues to wow today, all this time later, and it’s this kind of timeless experience that we’re searching for when we look through back catalogs, isn’t it?
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