For those of you just tuning in, I recently started an RPG Maker Workshop series to help aspiring RPG developers become the game-making experts they’ve dreamed of. Yet in writing that, I assumed that my readers had already purchased RPG Maker, while others may not be at that point yet. After all, with the numerous iterations of the program available to purchase on Steam, how is a potential buyer supposed to know how each one stacks up to one another?
If you have been asking yourself this question and are hesitant to make a purchase, then fret not! Below you will find my thorough descriptions and reviews for each version of RPG Maker readily available in English. With this guide, you will gain the knowledge you need to make an informed decision on which product is right for you.
That said, if you’re impatient and just want a quick summary, then…
TL;DR: Each version of RPG Maker has unique qualities, but pound-for-pound RPG Maker VX Ace is the best iteration of the program for newbs and vets alike. For more details, read on.
The following list is in chronological order of each program's original release. This list will only cover the PC versions of RPG Maker released in English, as the console RPG Maker games are a significantly different beast.
Summary: A groundbreaking game design tool for its time, bringing unprecedented depth and ease of use to the RPG Maker series. Though this is not the first version of RPG Maker to arrive on PC, it is the first iteration powerful enough to create complex, commercial quality RPGs.
What it’s like: RPG Maker 2000 is a hard program to write about objectively. For many, this was the program that got them into RPG Maker or game design in general, and the robust community it created could put a nostalgic tear in anyone’s eye. Though its graphics and features may not stand up to current iterations of RPG Maker, the underlying program remains competent and user friendly to this day.
From the friendly user interface to easy to understand commands, aspiring game designers will have no problem making something technically playable with an hour of using the program. Within a week it’s possible to have a first town or dungeon, and within a month a designer could have a ~30 minute game demo to show their friends. That isn’t to say it will be any good, but this is the type of simplicity that kicked off the RPG Maker series so strong. Whether the user decides they want to make a new item to add to a treasure chest or wants to throw a mysterious merchant in the corner of the town, they should have no problem finding whatever they need using this program.
All the tools for making a simple RPG are there, but the program isn’t natively designed for things like custom menus or nuanced combat systems. While these features are technically possible with a deeper understanding of the program, new users may feel a bit underwhelmed at the dearth of options in things like spell creation and status ailments. It could be argued that RPG Maker games of this era were more inventive given the limitations they were forced to work around, but regardless the program was clearly designed with basic RPGs in mind. Some may also find the 320 X 240 resolution of created games to be unacceptable, but anyone fond of SNES era visuals should feel at home in this regard.
Verdict: RPG Maker 2000 stands the test of time and is a good budget alternative to those that can’t afford the new versions or just like the retro graphics. That said, those who are looking to someday make complex games will eventually want to upgrade to a newer version, so it may be better for new users to just learn a more recent RPG Maker and stick with it. Still, there’s something to be said about the beautiful simplicity of RPG Maker 2000.
Summary: An updated variant of RPG Maker 2000. RPG Maker 2003 changes the front view battle system in RPG Maker 2000 to a side view system reminiscent of Final Fantasy titles, complete with an ATB bar. The default tilesets are also slightly modified, but overall it’s clearly built from the same foundation as RPG Maker 2000.
What it’s like: Of all the PC RPG Makers available, none are more similar than RPG Maker 2000 and RPG Maker 2003. Anyone who is familiar with one will have no problem jumping into the other, as the two share the majority of their assets and resources.
Having said that, RPG Maker 2003 definitely packs more complicated options under its hood. Most of the additional features pertain to the new battle system, but features like custom battle commands and expanded status ailment options can let the user get really creative in combat. RPG Maker 2003 also comes with additional songs and other resources, though these can all easy be imported into an RPG Maker 2000 project if so desired. Either way, it’s easily a more robust program that offers more than a battle system fit for Final Fantasy fangames.
This isn’t to say that RPG Maker 2003 is a wholesale improvement. For new users, the additional options in the database may make it more intimidating to learn, and there’s no option to disable the ATB bar in combat either. Also, while the program contains appropriate battle graphics for all of its main hero sprites, players will be on their own to create battle graphics if they want to add their own custom heroes into the game. At the time of release, this actually drove many users to learn basic sprite art and create their own battle graphics, but nowadays new users may just find this to be another barrier between themselves and their dream game.
Verdict: RPG Maker 2003 occupies a unique niche in being the only version of the program to offer side view ATB combat out of the box. If that is a game changing feature for you, then I would give this one a recommendation. For everyone else, it’s a bit less user friendly than RPG Maker 2000, and its advanced features still don’t compare to what the most recent versions of the program are capable of. It’s still a great program, but most users will likely prefer the other RPG Maker titles.
Summary: The true generational leap from RPG Maker 2000/2003. RPG Maker XP doubles the resolution to 640 X 480, comes with all new graphics and sounds, and is the first RPG Maker title to allow custom scripting in Ruby. As always, RPG Maker XP offers new features and mechanics under the hood as well.
What it’s like: To be honest, RPG Maker XP is the version of the program that I’m the least experienced with, so I may upset some fans with my potentially inaccurate analysis. I digress.
Although RPG Maker XP is a clear technological leap from its predecessors, it still uses the same database and commands skeleton of its predecessors. This is something that would be consistent in the RPG Maker series, but it’s surprising how familiar it feels with all its changes. The games made in the program feel different, but more on that later.
Nowadays, the biggest feature RPG Maker XP holds over other versions of RPG Maker is its mapping options. While most iterations of RPG Maker keep their default graphics simple and feature two “layers” on which tiles can be placed, RPG Maker XP features a surprisingly robust variety of tilesets with three layers that tiles can be placed on. To put this in layman terms, the graphics are bigger and more complicated than they were before. For mapping aficionados, this was a huge new feature; Even the current versions of RPG Maker don’t match up to RPG Maker XP in this regard.
It goes without saying that the addition of Ruby scripting would change the landscape of RPG Maker forever. While custom systems in RPG Maker 2000/2003 required some intricate work-arounds to achieve the desired results, RPG Maker XP lets game makers dive right into the guts of the game to change exactly what they want. The scripting community flourished and produced a myriad of plug-and-play scripts that even novice users could utilize. In other words, if you’re looking to add side view combat or an integrated quest log to your game, there’s probably a script for that. Ruby scripting is a major feature that would become a mainstay in the series, but it got its start with RPG Maker XP.
One thing that oddly took a hit is the speed that games run at. While previous RPG Makergames had no problem operating at a smooth 60 FPS, RPG Maker XP games run noticeably below that and can feel floaty to those used to other RPG Maker games. Even the new front view combat feels a bit slower, with more emphasis on animations and a lack of battle messages that defined combat in RPG Maker 2000. These may seem like nitpicks, and perhaps they are, but these traits make RPG Maker XP an anomaly in the series.
Verdict: RPG Maker XP rightfully deserves its niche with its unique default graphics and mapping options, but it’s probably the least user-friendly of all the versions of RPG Maker currently available.
This isn’t to say it’s not user friendly, but I imagine most new users might look at the seemingly obtuse tilesets and get a little intimidated. It’s clear that RPG Maker XP catered to advanced RPG Maker users, which was actually smart at the time but puts the program in a bit of a weird place now. For those who like the detailed graphics and the larger default sprites, RPG Maker XP is a decent enough buy. For those who still don’t want to pay top dollar (at MSRP anyway) but want an RPG Maker capable of scripting, I’d also say RPG Maker XP does the job. Other than that… well, Pokemon Essentials is made for RPG Maker XP, so I guess those who dream of making a Pokemon fangame have a version of the program just for them.
Author’s Note: RPG Maker Web has not made an updated promotional video for RPG Maker VX. This leaves us with this video, which can only be described as a thing of beauty. You too can understand why the RPG Maker Community thinks pixel art is awesome.
Summary: After catering to advanced RPG Maker users with RPG Maker XP, Enterbrain went in the polar opposite direction and created RPG Maker VX. Not only is RPG Maker VX the origin of the persisting chibi RPG Maker art style, it drastically simplified the mapping and reverted the default battle system to an updated take of RPG Maker 2000‘s combat. RPG Maker VX also added shortcuts that automatically create treasure chests and basic dungeon layouts in the game, which further cements the first-timer focus of the program.
What it’s like: The RPG Maker series has generally been taking two steps forward and one step back with each installment, and RPG Maker VX is perhaps the poster child of this problem. To its credit, it does succeed in winning back fans who didn’t warm to RPG Maker XP, but in doing so it causes some bizarre problems.
As always, the interface is equal parts fresh and familiar, and the games made with the engine once again run at a brisk 60 FPS. The before mentioned shortcut options are handy for new users and veterans alike, and the layout of the database is the neatest and easiest to understand yet. It’s actually so easy to use that I was able to create a small game with the original Japanese demo, and yes I have no idea how to read Japanese. It’s hard to convey just how clean RPG Maker VX feels in words, but anyone who jumps from an older RPG Maker to this one will see the difference immediately.
The problem with RPG Maker VX is that it went too far in its simplification at times and wound up gimping its mapping capabilities. Make no mistake, the actual tiles included in RPG Maker VX‘s default graphics are much easier to learn and construct into fully fledged maps. The problem is that all of these tiles are contained to a limited number of tilesets, and it’s impossible to add more tiles to the engine without removing ones that are already there.
In previous RPG Makers, it was easy to import your own custom tilesets. Whenever you made a new map in the engine, you were given the option to choose which tileset you wanted to use for that map, so the sky was the limit for custom graphics. RPG Maker VX has essentially one mega-tileset that is used for every map in your project, so you’re effectively prevented by the editor to use the default graphics in conjunction with anything else. This approach does have extremely niche advantages, but new users may feel a bit overwhelmed with the sheer volume of graphics in their face when they just want to make a house, dungeon, etc. After all, given that all the parts are technically mixed together here, it can be a bit harder to find what you’re looking for.
These mapping limitations can technically be overcome by implementing some custom scripting, but unfortunately it’s a clunky at best solution that doesn’t actually improve the interface of the editor.
Verdict: In truth, even with its faults, RPG Maker VX was my favorite iteration of the program upon its release. I loved the good new features it did bring to the table, and the neatly organized interface was a ton of fun to use. I would perhaps recommend this one, had it not been completely outclassed by…
Summary: Enterbrain decided that they wanted the RPG Maker community to die of euphoria, so they put out a massively improved version of RPG Maker VX that addressed the program’s major issues. While they were at it, they also included phenomenal new features that let both newcomers and veterans alike go crazy in customizing their games.
What it’s like: I can’t say enough good things about RPG Maker VX Ace. The combination of accessibility and power here is unprecedented in not only the RPG Maker series, but in game development software in general.
Want to make a weapon that attacks an enemy nine times in a row? You can. Want to make an epic boss fight in a nightmare background that is one part hell and one part space? You can. Want to make a skill that does damage equal to how many top hats you have in your inventory? You can. All of this without using custom scripting or resources, mind you, though that’s still an option if you want even more customization.
It’s amazing how feature complete RPG Maker VX Ace is out of the box. Even new to intermediate users will have no problem realizing fairly complex ideas in the default battle system, which also has undergone a few changes. The addition of specific Magic Attack, Magic Defense, and Luck parameters open new doors for character customization, and battles themselves feel snappier and more energetic than they did in previous RPG Makers. There’s also an optional limit break style mp bar that can incorporated into combat as well, so it’s never been easier to make that Omnislash or Erupting Burning Finger finisher that you always wanted. There will inevitably be some limitations depending on how crazy your ideas get, but what’s possible here is simply fantastic.
I suppose all the added features may make the database a little intimidating, but there are some great new features for newbies in here as well. Users can automatically load one of over 100 sample maps into their games, which can then be freely customized to the user’s content. I’d argue this to be one of the best ways for newcomers to learn how to map in RPG Maker, and including this function into RPG Maker VX Ace was a genius idea. The interface also separates its basic and complex commands fairly distinctly, so new users can just enjoy the clean and easy interface carried over from RPG Maker VX if they so desire.
Oh, and by the way, the default soundtrack is arguably the best one yet too.
Verdict: Get it. It’s currently the best RPG Maker by such a wide margin that it’s no contest if you only plan on getting one version of it. If price is an issue, or you just aren’t sure you’re committed, then you still get a good product in any of the previous editions of the program. Just make sure to snag this one somewhere down the line.
Summary: The new, upcoming version of RPG Maker! So mysterious!
What we know so far: According to rpgmakerweb.com, here are the new features that RPG Maker MV will bring to the table:
There are a few other additions as well, but these seem to be the most prominent features.
I would presume there to be other minor tweaks under the hood as well, but it’s hard to tell with the available footage. The interface appears to be by and large similar to RPG Maker VX Ace, which isn’t a bad thing. Anything beyond that is speculation at this point.
Is it worth waiting for?: Who knows!? I will say that the advertised features seem to cater more towards developers publishing commercial games using RPG Maker, so I’m not sure how relevant this one will be for newbies. Mac users (or those who have friends who are Mac users) will be thrilled by default, but otherwise I don’t think you’ll go wrong by using RPG Maker VX Ace for now.
There were so many details to discuss with every facet of each program, but I hope these summaries will help put you on your way to finding the software that’s just right for you. If there is demand, I would be happy to talk more in-depth about any iteration of RPG Maker in the RPG Maker Workshop.
No matter which version of RPG Maker you buy, remember to have fun making your dream games a reality! A world full of dreams and adventures with RPGs awaits! Let’s go!