RPG Maker: History & Games
A look at the last three decades of this legendary indie dev tool
Creating a tool to allow regular gamers to make their own game is not a new idea. It has been done several times, from ancient titles like Eamon (1980) and Pinball Construction Set (1982) to things like ZZT (1991), Forgotten Realms: Unlimited Adventures (1993), Neverwinter Nights (2002) and Roblox (2006).
But RPG Maker is the absolute king of this hill.
Its history spans three decades across multiple platforms, with thousands of released games — both free and commercial — including dozens of all-time classics.
Packed with pre-made art, music and gameplay systems, the over 30 versions of RPG Maker allow anyone to easily create a JRPG in the style of 16-bit titles like Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. A user can import their own art and customize every part of the gameplay, or just use the included assets and systems to focus on other parts of the game.
Of course, it wasn’t long before people began ripping sprites, music and other assets from their favourite series to create their own Chrono Trigger sequel or Dragon Ball Z JRPG. This is definitely a huge draw of the tool and the reason why many first began making their own game — especially in the 2000s, when packs of ripped resources for RPG Maker were widely available (since then, companies like Nintendo began to DMCA big projects like Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes and parts of the community began a strong “no-rip” policy).
However, this also led to a lot of prejudice towards the tool, as people would find ripped assets on commercial RPG Maker games, or get tired of seeing Steam and itch.io being flooded with hundreds of poor-quality Final Fantasy clones using the same default RPG Maker art.
Still, these are just side-effects of the popularity and accessibility of the tool — so friendly that it was the first tool of many developers. And in the hands of skilled developers, the tool can be pushed to its limits to create something truly unique.
So let’s take a look into the history of RPG Maker, and highlight some of its most important games.
The birth of the maker
The story of RPG Maker (or RPGツクール) begins back in January of 1987, when Japan’s Login magazine published Adventure Maker (アドベンチャーツクール), a tool that allowed users to create text-adventures for the PC-88 Japanese computer.
As it was common at the time, the software’s entire code was printed on the magazine’s page — four pages of code for people to type into their own computers and use!
The software was successful, and the magazine would create other versions of it, such as 1987’s Dungeon Manjiro (ダンジョン万次郎), a tool to create Wizardry clones, and 1988’s Mamirin (まみりん), that could create RPGs in the style of Ultima. The name “Danjyon Manjirō” is a pun with the name of John Manjirō, one of the first Japanese to visit the US. Mamirin was also named after a historical figure, the explorer Mamiya Rinzō.
While they had a few interesting features such as a custom sprite creator, these tools were still very primitive. Dungeons, for example, could only have walls or doors. Similarly, NPCs could only repeat a few lines of text.
Login magazine was published by the giant ASCII Corporation, and in 1990 the company would release RPG Construction Tool: Dante (RPGコンストラクションツール Dante). Released for MSX2 computers, it was a much more powerful tool, allowing users to add music, customize spells and details like the stat progression, as well as craft complex stories.
From there on, several sequels and ports were produced, for platforms as diverse as the PC-98 Japanese computer, the Super Nintendo / Super Famicom, Windows, PlayStation and Gameboy Color.
The series would also shorten its title to RPGツクール, or RPG Tsukūru — again a pun, mixing the sounds of “tsukuru” (to make) and “tool”.
And while RPG Maker is the most famous branch of the series, ASCII also published several other “Maker” tools, such as Fighter Maker, Action Game Maker, Love Sim Maker and Shooting Maker.
Originally a Japan-only title, RPG Maker first reached the West in the early 2000s, when a Russian student called ‘Don Miguel’ released fan translations of RPG Maker 95 and 2000. He was threatened with a lawsuit and forced to stop distributing them, but it was too late — his translations were already spread all across the Internet.
An official English release would arrive only in 2005, when a company called Protexis released RPG Maker XP in English. If you’re interested, PC Gamer has a nice article detailing the evolution of each English version, and how the community reacted to each.
After this brief intro establishing how RPG Maker appeared, let’s take a look at its main attraction: the games. The list below is not a ranking of the best things ever made in RPG Maker, but rather some of the most important and iconic, that represent the evolution of the games over the years.
WARNING: Many of the games involve adult themes.
Cock-A-Doodle-Doo (クック・ドゥ・ドゥル・ドゥー, 1995)
It was common in Japan to have magazines and game publishers create design contests for their readers/gamers — that’s how many industry legends began, such as Dragon Quest’s creator Yuji Horii.
In 1995, ASCII released RPG Maker: Super Dante, a version for the SNES / Super Famicon, and held a game design contest to celebrate it.
They received 3,447 entries. Yes, over three thousand Japanese in 1995 made a game in RPG Maker and sent it to a contest!
The winner was Cock-A-Doodle-Doo, which got around the severe limitations the tool had by making a comedy RPG where you play as Pal, the pet rooster of Nicole, a millionaire girl gone broke. Together with a cat (that calls himself “God of Death”), you must work to help Nicole recover her finances, alternating between the three characters.
The creator, a 17-year boy old, got 10 million yen as prize — about 80,000 USD. The game was then distributed for free using the Japan-only Satellaview modem for the Super Famicom.
Corpse Party (コープスパーティー, 1996)
Created by Makoto “Kedwin” Kedouin in RPG Maker Dante 98, a 1992 version of the tool for the PC-98 Japanese computer, Corpse Party was the winner of ASCII’s second contest. And it showed just how flexible RPG Maker could be.
A horror game set in a Japanese High School, it’s heavily focused on dialogue and atmosphere, abandoning most RPG elements — characters have stats, but they’re mostly useless, and there’s only one battle in the entire game. It established many tropes of the horror genre: the simple key-and-lock puzzles, a monster that chases the player, and multiple endings based on which characters survived.
Corpse Party became a poster boy for RPG Maker, an icon among doujin (hobbyist games) and a cultural phenomenon in Japan, with seven sequels and several best-selling adaptations into manga, anime, novels, drama CDs and live-action movies.
The original PC-98 version was never translated, but the game was later remade in RPG Maker XP and then translated.
Azusa 999 (1997)
After Corpse Party, RPG Maker began being used to create all kinds of games and experiences. Azusa 999 is one of them: an award-winning story about suicide, created in 1997 by Ichiro Sogabe, a 19-year old Japanese student.
Set inside an afterlife train, with no combat or puzzles, Azusa 999 is about meeting several other characters, learning about their lives and the choices that led them there. A precursor to “walking simulators”, it’s a heavy and extremely sad game, but its message is a hopeful one.
The game was translated into English in 2020.
Peret em Heru: For the Prisoners (囚人へのペル・エム・フル, 1998)
Inspired by Corpse Party, this horror RPG has an obsessed professor using a group of eleven tourists to explore a hidden chamber in the Giza Pyramid.
The game has a few RPG elements such as random battles, stats and level ups, but the focus is on solving its puzzles by using Adventure game-like commands (Pull, Push, Take, Crouch, etc) to save as many of the characters as possible. Created by Makoto Yaotani using RPG Maker Dante 98 II, it won several game awards and became a cult classic.
Only available for PC-98, it was translated by fans in 2014 and can be downloaded bundled with an emulator.
Palette (パレット, 1998)
Winner of the 4th annual ASCII contest, Palette shows the RPG Maker tool began to be pushed further and further into new territories. Made by Nishida Yoshitaka in RPG Maker 95, Palette tells the story of a psychiatrist trying to help a girl that lost her sight and memory in an accident.
The game has no combat and plays like an adventure/puzzle game, asking you to explore scenes in the girl’s “mind palace” and collect key items to recover her memories without causing too much emotional stress. It was remade for PlayStation 1 in 2001, under the name Forget me not -パレット.
Palette got an English translation in 2012.
A Blurred Line (2001)
One of the first big western games to be made with RPG Maker, A Blurred Line is often voted one of the best free titles created with the tool. It puts you in control of Talan, a man on the run, accused of murdering The Director. Desperate, he has only one clue: “seek Paradise”.
Developed by Lysander86 using a fan-translated version of RPG Maker 2000, it delivers a solid Sci-Fi story, full of twists and branching paths that will affect the narrative and the companions you find. The game was planned to be a trilogy, but the last part was never complete, leaving some plot threads unresolved.
Yume Nikki (ゆめにっき, 2004)
A legendary cult game, Yume Nikki is truly an oddity. You play as a girl inside her bedroom. There’s little to do, and she doesn’t want to leave the room. By going to bed, you travel to a dream zone with 12 doors, each leading to a different dream world.
Created by Kikiyama in RPG Maker 2003, Yume Nikki has no combat, no dialogues, no story, no objectives… you just roam the dream worlds, finding all sorts of interesting landscapes while listening to some excellent and varied background music, in a meditative and introspective journey.
However, fans found out items hidden across the dreams, such as a bicycle, an umbrella, a knife and multiple costumes that the character can wear. Moreover, by gathering all items in the zone with the 12 doors, a special ending is unlocked. The meaning of the dreams, the items and the ending are all open to speculation, making it an Internet sensation in the 2000s and leading to multiple fan theories and fan games.
Super Columbine Massacre RPG! (2005)
A highly controversial game created by Danny Ledonne in RPG Maker 2003 as a “game-documentary” about the 1999 Columbine school shootings. It cast the player as the two shooters and recreates that tragic day in hopes of gaining a better understanding of it, using real photos of the event.
In 2007, SCMRPG! was chosen as a finalist for the Slamdance Guerrilla Gamemaker Competition. But it was later pulled from the contest on alleged “moral obligations”. In protest, a group of other competitors — including the developers of Braid, flOw and Castle Crashers — wrote an open letter to the Slamdance organisers, arguing that the decision was “[…] hurting the legitimacy of games as a form of expression, exploration, and experience”.
Danny Ledonne further explored these events with a 2008 documentary titled Playing Columbine, focused on the controversy surrounding SCMRPG! and the perception of games as children’s toys.
Aveyond I: Rhen’s Quest (2006)
In 2004, writer Amanda Fitch released Ahriman’s Prophecy, her first RPG Maker title. Aveyond is a continuation of that story, now as a commercial product. The game tells the story of a village girl that gets sold as a slave and goes through several adventures that will reveal her destiny.
While its graphics and gameplay are simple, Aveyond succeeded in delivering a captivating story and a solid “16-bit JRPG” flavour during a time when these types of games had fallen out of style. It was also one of the first commercial RPG Maker titles outside of Japan, released when indie games were extremely rare. Aveyond grew into a rather popular series, with seven games — all done in RPG Maker XP.
Alter A.I.L.A. (2007)
Created by Neo Kuriyo in RPG Maker 2003, it tells the story of nine prisoners forced to battle in a virtual arena. As they escape, the plot branches into three entirely different routes, each offering unique twists and betrayals.
While it still used a few assets taken from commercial games (like music from Chrono Trigger), it’s a highly polished free title and one of the most iconic among the early western RPG Maker games. From its character designs to the dialogues and soundtrack, the entire game is like a time portal back to the Internet culture of the 2000s.
In 2010 the developer released Alter A.I.L.A. Genesis, a remake that was also popular, adding side-scrolling exploration and a more complex combat system.
Ruina: Fairy Tale of the Forgotten Ruins (Ruina 廃都の物語, 2008)
Created by Shoukichi Karekusa using RPG Maker 2000, Ruina is one of the most popular RPGs created with the tool in Japan.
It combines a traditional JRPG combat with inspirations from tabletop RPGs and CYOA books — you explore dungeons room by room, dealing with illustrated encounters and battles. The game features four playable characters, each with their own story, and was later adapted into a two-part novel.
A surreal RPG created by Belgian duo Mortis Ghost and Alias Conrad Coldwood, OFF cast you as The Batter, a cryptic man with a baseball bat who wishes to purify the world of spectres.
The game became iconic for its quirky characters with surreal designs, excellent soundtrack, a lot of 4th wall breaking (like messing your save files), and a clever plot twist about pointless violence in video games (a big novelty at the time). And if all that sounds familiar, yes, OFF was one of the main inspirations for 2015's Undertale.
Released first only in French, an English release would arrive in 2011.
Ao Oni (青鬼, 2008)
Created in RPG Maker XP by noprops, Ao Oni (meaning “blue demon”) is probably the most famous horror game created with the tool. You play as Hiroshi, a Japanese teenager that goes into a haunted mansion with other schoolmates and gets locked inside, chased by the eponymous demon while trying to solve several puzzles and escape.
While the original version was released in 2008, the developer kept updating it during the next years, changing story elements, redesigning the mansion and the puzzles. The game exploded in popularity in the early 2010s, when Youtubers and streamers like PewDiePie, Markiplier and HikakinGames had millions of views playing Ao Oni and games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent (2010), Slender: The Eight Pages (2012) and Five Nights At Freddy’s (2014).
Riding on its explosive success, the game got several sequels, many novel adaptations, a 2016 anime and two live-action movies.
Exit Fate (2009)
An epic and elaborate 25+ hours RPG heavily inspired by Suikoden II, created by SCFWorks in RPG Maker XP. Over a decade later, Exit Fate is still one of the biggest and most ambitious projects made with the tool.
The game blends the traditional JRPG battles — here with a party of six characters and a formation system — with large-scale tactical battles where you control armies, as well as a castle that the player must manage. In true Suikoden form, it offers a massive cast of 75 recruitable characters, plus some very challenging post-game content.
Space Funeral (2010)
Created by thecatamites in RPG Maker 2003, Space Funeral is a weird game. And it came out in a time when people weren’t used to weird games (OFF’s English release wouldn’t arrive until 2011).
You play as Phillip, a crying boy wearing pajamas. His world is a surreal land full of ugly creatures, graphical errors and blood — a lot of blood. Expelled from home, he joins forces with Leg Horse, a creature made only of amputated legs, to travel to the City of Forms and try to restore the world.
The game itself is very short and easy, but that’s beside the point. The surreal presentation, the excellent soundtrack and the game’s protest against the obsession for retro 16-bit games still are powerful and thought-provoking. As the developer puts it:
It wasn’t so much about the sprites or art in particular of RPG Maker so much as a kind of classicist way of dealing with that stuff, which is like the idea that videogames reached their peak in the output of a few large companies in the 90s and ever since it’s all anyone can do to ape those things as closely as possible […] — thecatamites
To the Moon (2011)
Lying on his deathbed, Johnny hires a service that will rewrite his memories, granting him his most inner desire: going to the moon.
You play as the two scientists that execute this operation, travelling back in Johnny’s memories to learn more about his obsession and then asking the player how to best rewrite his life so he can achieve his dreams.
Created by Freebird Games using RPG Maker XP, its combination of nostalgic 16-bit graphics with a heavy, emotional and touching story felt like video games were growing with their audience, delivering more mature stories to an older audience.
The spotlight was later taken by Dear Esther (2012), Gone Home (2013) and other “walking simulators”, but To The Moon’s influence cannot be ignored.
RPG Maker has been used to create many “artsy” games, but Middens is perhaps the most challenging— not in a gameplay sense, but as an art piece.
Created by myformerselves in RPG Maker XP, you start the game by talking to a sentient revolver, which will be your guide and main weapon in your journey across the void. The void is a surreal landscape that is hard to navigate, and there are no goals at first, giving it a Yume Nikki feeling. It’s not clear even what is an enemy and what is just a bizarre NPC, but your revolver keeps asking you to shoot everything — inside and out of combat.
Dense, divisive and absolutely unique, Middens remains one of the most visually striking RPG Maker games.
Ib (イヴ, 2012)
A horror game about a girl lost in a twisted art gallery, Ib feels like a maturing of RPG Maker horror games, focusing more on atmosphere, characters and story than on jump scares.
The game features three characters: Ib, a 9-year old girl that was visiting the gallery with her parents; Garry, an extravagant young man that was also visiting the gallery; and Mary, a mysterious blond girl that befriends Ib.
Each character carries a rose, that withers as they take damage. You explore the twisted gallery, solving puzzles and making story choices that lead to several different endings.
Created by kouri using RPG Maker 2000, Ib became a cult hit and had translations into multiple languages — by 2014 the game already had more than 2 million downloads.
Star Stealing Prince (2012)
A free fantasy RPG about a young prince who uncovers a dark secret behind his kingdom’s prosperity. Created by Ronove in RPG Maker VX, Star Stealing Prince is not a revolutionary, avant-garde or thought-provoking title, but it’s a great example of traditional RPG Maker games still being created, with solid art, challenging battles and a cute story — all available for free.
Pom gets Wi-Fi (2013)
Created in RPG Maker 2003 by Brianna Lei when she was 19-years old, Pom gets Wi-Fi is an extremely funny game about a very online Pomeranian. Killed in a fire, she goes to heaven and hates it — there’s no wi-fi.
Short and based on very basic puzzles, what really sells it is the sharp writing of its obnoxious and overly-dramatic main character. To this day it’s the most popular game at RPGMaker.net, with over 200,000 downloads.
While puzzle games had been done before in RPG Maker, such as Professor McLogic Saves the Day (2008) and the previously mentioned Palette, OneShot stands out among them.
The game stars a catgirl who wakes up in a decaying world. In the basement of a house, she finds a lightbulb — the last hope of this world.
To save the world she’ll have to solve many complex puzzles, using the help of a special companion: you, the player. OneShot breaks the 4th wall in novel ways — the catgirl will talk directly to you, and some puzzles might require tinkering with files on your computer!
Also, as the name suggests, you only have one shot. There are no fail-states but, if you close the game outside of special areas, the catgirl dies and the world is doomed — the game becomes forever unplayable!
Originally a free game, in 2016 OneShot was re-released on Steam as a commercial product, softening the “one-shot” mechanic. A critical and sales hit, it has over 20,000 reviews on Steam and was nominated to several awards.
LISA: The Painful (2014)
The LISA series began in 2012, with LISA: The First, made by Dingaling in RPG Maker 2003. The game was a simple but extremely dark experience about exploring the dreams of a girl who suffered serious abuse and trauma.
The author then made a 2013 Kickstarter for a sequel, LISA: The Painful, raising just over 13,000 USD. The game tells of a post-apocalyptic future where every woman disappeared. Brad, the main character, finds a baby girl and raises her in secret, until she is kidnapped and he must rescue her.
What made it one of the best RPGs of the decade is its tone and writing — a mix of the most grotesque and toxic masculine behaviours with genuine and sincere signs of affection between very humane characters. There are scenes that are hilarious, but also scenes that are brutal and horrific. The game itself won’t pull any punches, permanently killing your party members and pushing Brad to the absolute limit. It’s all necessary, in order to deliver an ending that will really stick with players.
Like many other RPG Maker titles, LISA is a niche game — too extreme for a wider audience, but absolutely unmissable for certain groups.
Following in the footsteps of games like OFF, Space Funeral and Middens, Hylics is a surreal RPG Maker VX Ace title, created by Mason Lindroth. While the structure is that of a traditional JRPG, the content itself is always like a fever dream—the world is created from a fascinating mix of claymation and motion capture, while part of the confusing dialogues is just gibberish from a random generator.
Together with its sequel, it’s a game not about the gameplay, but about immersing yourself in what feels like a JRPG from another dimension.
Pokémon Uranium (2016)
In 2007, a group of fans put together Pokémon Essentials, a pack of assets & resources for anyone trying to make a Pokémon game in RPG Maker XP.
Thanks to these community efforts, dozens of Pokémon fan games were made in RPG Maker, each offering some new twist to the formula: Pokemon Fire Ash recreates the anime’s plot, Pokemon Infinite Fusion lets you combine DNA to create new monsters, and Pokémon Wack features over 5,000 monsters (including Digimons lol).
Among these, Uranium stood out for its high quality and polish, being on par with the best official Pokémon games. Developed during 9 years, the game adds 150 new Pokémons (for a total of 200 playable monsters), many difficulty options, and a new Pokémon type, Nuclear. A viral sensation, the game got over 1,5 million downloads, then was shut down by a Nintendo DMCA.
Uranium also made headlines in 2017 for being nominated to The Game Awards as “Best Fan Creation” — then being quietly removed from the awards.
Your Turn To Die — Death Game By Majority (キミガシネ -多数決デスゲーム, 2017)
An episodic horror game in the style of Danganronpa, where a group of 11 characters is kidnapped and sent to a facility, where they are forced to play various games and challenges that decide who will die.
Created by artist Nankidai using RPG Maker VM, it combines visual novel presentation with Adventure game elements. Extremely polished, it’s one of the most popular recent indies in Japan, with over 4 million online plays and adaptations into novels and manga.
New episodes are still being released in 2021, and an English translation began in 2019.
Omori began in 2011 as a series of illustrations and blog posts about a depressed character, created by an American illustrator called Omocat. It grew into a comic book, and in 2014 became a Kickstarter project for an RPG. The project raised over 200,000 USD and was released in 2020.
Made in RPG Maker MV, the game is a surreal psychological horror RPG, mixing influences from Earthbound and Undertale with a heavy focus on the character’s emotions. Travelling between the real world and an idealized, nostalgic dream world, the game explores themes of depression and anxiety.
Fear & Hunger (2021)
An extremely dark RPG Maker MV game about doing everything to survive a deadly dungeon. You choose a class, go through a short CYOA segment that will define your stats, and then venture into the dark.
Inside the dungeon, you will have to scavenge food to survive, deal with diseases, phobias, and brutal monsters that might mutilate or even decapitate you in a single blow. Not for the faint of heart, the game features scenes of rape, self-mutilation, necrophilia and cannibalism. The sequel, Fear & Hunger: Termina, is currently under development.
Of course, these are only a fraction of the full RPG Maker library.
The RPG Maker community was always rather fragmented, spread across several websites across the world, so there’s also development scenes in Russian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Portuguese, Korean and French, with ambitious projects like Aëdemphia — a French RPG that’s been in development since 2003:
While this lead to a lot of diversity and unique subcultures like もしも games, it also makes it extremely hard to truly grasp the scope of the RPG Maker scene, especially since several communities and forums no longer exist, such as GamingW, GamingGroundZero, RPGsource, rpg2knet, Mundo Maker, etc.
On top of all that, there are still things like WOLF RPG Editor, a free alternative to RPG Maker that also has a few classic games like Misao (2011), Mad Father (2012) and LiEat (2016).
If you’re still not overwhelmed and want to look for more games, check the annual Misao award, the (now gone) Official Masterpiece Gallery or these two community polls. And if you want to dig deeper into communities & games from the past, try this thread or the RPG Maker Historia blog.