Let's Rank The Elder Scrolls Games, Best To Worst

We here at Kotaku have been having a lot of fun with rankings lately, from Halo to Grand Theft Auto to Final Fantasy to Pokémon. And now, it's time to rank the big daddy of singleplayer RPGs: The Elder Scrolls series.

Of course, when I say "big daddy", I mean it: Size is of the defining characteristic of Bethesda's Elder Scrolls games. But while all the games in the series might be big, are they all equally good? Let's find out.

Before I start, a few notes: These aren't Kotaku's official picks, these are just my personal choices. I hope you'll offer your own list in the comments, and explain why you put them in that order. Also, I decided not to include expansion packs, even though The Shivering Isles is so much fun — I figured it would be better to include the expansion packs under the umbrella of their respective games. Lastly, I elected to keep this list constrained to numbered entries: so, no Battlespire, no Redguard, and no Elder Scrolls Travels games.

That make sense? OK, let's go.

1. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind

Morrowind is arguably the series' most distinctive entry, and it's also my favourite. The bizarre plants and animals of Vvardenfell stick with me even today — the misty, sticky swamps, the remote desert cities, and the burnished metal of Vivec. While Oblivion and to a lesser extent Skyrim often felt like rote "fantasy" settings, Morrowind almost always felt like a whole new world.

Despite my time playing Arena in particular, Morrowind was the first time I'd really experienced anything that felt both so open and so detailed. I'll never forget when I began to have nighttime visitors — I've forgotten the particulars, but there's a part in the story when you sleep and are attacked by assassins. Somehow, it just seemed amazing that the game's story really worked, that it was functioning properly and this world was reacting to me in the way it seemed to be. Part of that, I sense, was the relative opacity of Morrowind when compared with Oblivion and Skyrim; it wasn't always obvious that I'd achieved a quest objective, and everything was more organic and harder to read. (That was cool.)

I have a feeling that Elder Scrolls games will continue to grow and improve, but I'm not sure I'll ever recapture the feeling of playing Morrowind for the first time. And the music… oh, man, the music.


2. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

I don't have much more to say about Skyrim, considering that I've written approximately 5000 articles about it in my time here at Kotaku. I'm not sure I've ever seen a game become an EVENT in quite the way Skyrim did — for months on end, it was so much fun simply to get caught up in the thrill of it all. Especially the dragons.

It's a game I'm still playing, still modding; I'm still looking forward to the Dragonborn DLC, which has yet to come to PC. Every now and then, I have an insane desire to start up a new character and see if magic-using is really as weird as I've always found it to be. Skyrim didn't quite have the magic needed to usurp Morrowind as my favourite game in the series. But it came damned close. And hey, when all is said and done, it still might.


3. The Elder Scrolls: Arena

I'll never forget when I picked up the first Elder Scrolls game, Arena. It was coming up on 20 years ago. I read the box in the Software, etc. in our mall and marveled at the thing — this was the most ambitious-looking game I'd ever seen. Could it possibly be as good as it looked?

Turned out… well, sort of. It certainly hasn't aged all that well. But at the time, I remember being amazed that there were so many places and things in this world, and that they were all different. The fact that most of the game was copy/pasted doesn't take away from my many memories playing it, adventuring through identical dungeon after identical dungeon, figuring out ways to exploit the questionable-at-best combat system. I remember the first time I enchanted a weapon — I'd somehow managed to get an ebony katana (which was pretty badass on its own), and I went to the enchanter (I think?) in order to charge it with a spell.

I had so little idea of how it would all work, and couldn't believe how complicated the whole system was. Would this really make my katana more powerful? Would it destroy it? What was going to happen?? I saved my money, then — and I vividly remember this — I woke up at 5AM before school began and went ahead and had the guy charge up my sword. And it worked! Something about that entire process just seemed so mysterious and real…it's the kind of thing that very few games manage even today, and it'll always be one of my formative gaming memories.


4. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Given how many hours I sank into Oblivion, it may seem surprising to see it so low on the list. But while Oblivion is an outstanding (even underrated!) game in many respects, its relatively dull setting of Cyrodiil and mostly boring, melodramatic story leave it somewhat below the other games for me. It may have polished the template set forth in Morrowind, but too much of the game felt like a soulless grind through a generic fantasy setting. I threw hundreds of hours into Oblivion, managed to level my main character until he could pick any lock, defeat any foe, and jump over most small hills. I sprinted into dozens of Oblivion gates, booking it past enemies and exploiting the glitch that let you quicksave, grab the Sigil Stone and warp out, then check the power granted by the stone and if need be, reload until you got something good. Man, did I have some mighty enchanted weapons in Oblivion.

The Shivering Isles expansion went a long way towards addressing some of Oblivion's personality deficits, even if Sheogorath was insufferable most of the time. But as enjoyable as it all was, something about the game just felt hollow to me. I think it was partly that I played it on Xbox 360 — this was when I'd traded my gaming PC for a mac, and was just getting back into gaming after taking a few years off. As a result, I wasn't able to mod the game to the extent that so many others could, and past a certain point, I simply stopped playing.


5. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall

Poor Daggerfall. If Elder Scrolls games are known for their size, Daggerfall is the Elder Scrolls game that suffered from being too big. "You like how big Arena was?" the folks at Bethesda seemed to ask, "Okay, check THIS out!"

Daggerfall also has the unfortunate distinction of being the game on this list that I've played the least of, which I'm sure at least partly explains its last-place positioning. But it's also a chicken-and-egg situation; I think I never got all that interested in it because it was just too big (and spread too thin) to handle. You can download it for free and see for yourself — this game is almost comically oversized. I've heard from plenty of folks who found things to love about Daggerfall, so I'm not ready to call it a disaster or anything. But I'm happy that Bethesda decided to go another direction with Morrowind, to shrink their scope while adding detail.


So there they are, my list of the Elder Scrolls games, from best to worst. What's your order?

Top picture: Ducan Harris, who is doing more Skyrim shots over at Dead End Thrills.


Comments

    I think I had 220 hours in Oblivion

    Not nearly as much with Skyrim due to now being employed

    Goes to show you what can change in the interim

    Skyrim > Oblivion > Morrowind

    Haven't played the first two games or any of the spinoffs.

    Daggerfall - Oblivion - Skyrim - Morrowind - Arena

    Morrowind > Skyrim >>>> Oblivion
    Daggerfall I only played very briefly and very very long ago so I can't rightly add it to the list because I remember very little of it. Never played Arena.

    The reasons stated in the article say pretty well why I think I didn't enjoy Oblivion. It really did feel kinda hollow.
    Then again, Morrowind was the first Elder Scrolls game I played. So yes, I may recognise Morrowind's many flaws (for it did have several) but through rose-tinted glasses it's definitely my favourite game. :)

    I'm very happy to see some love for Arena. Damn right.

    I still have the complete boxed set at home, complete with all the discs, booklets and reference sheets and all in absolute pristine condition. Words cannot describe how much i loved this game when i was younger. It was an absolute BLAST. Never before had i played anything like it.

    Morrowind was much the same feeling all those years later - the sheer scale when you first step off that boat and look at the water and trees... such an amazing game.

    Such an amazing series.

    I like all the games except Morrowind. I know it's this great setting, but I wasn't able to enjoy it because the combat system was so bad. I really can't recall worse game play.

    For me, its Oblivion > Skyrim > Morrowind > Arena > Daggerfall

    I put about 120 hours into Oblivion (a figure dwarfed by others on here I'm sure, but for me thats a big deal)... I just loved everything about that game.

    I'd swap Morrowind and Skyrim. But apart from that, the list is spot on.

    Daggerfall also has the auspicious accolade of being the BUGGIEST game I've ever played. It regularly crashed and you'd be lucky to get an hour out of it before you'd have to reload from the latest save ... if it didn't corrupt it. And every subsequent patch just seemed to make things worse. It's the only game that I've played where I had to game and back up my save files after each and every game save. It was even buggier than Ultima IX ... and that's saying something!

    I've only played Oblivion so Morrowind's the best!

    Skyrim was tolerable, even if the combat was WAY WAY too easy, the crafting system remains stupid and I was driven insane by a companion who continued to express astonishment every single time I cast a healing spell in her presence.

    Oblivion was Skyrim except with the world's stupidest levelling system and a plot that wasn't even tolerable. I finished Skyrim's main plot, I didn't even bother with Oblivion.

    The two most overrated games ever. AAA-versions of Farmville: additictive repetitiveness, but the depth of a puddle.

    Skyrim > Oblivion > Morrowind.

    I haven't played the others, Oblivion was my first and I loved it, Skyrim polished it up a lot more and I've only just started on Morrowind recently but am finding it hard to get into because it's oldschool and doesn't hold my hand pointing me in the right direction or giving me fast travel.

    Had I played Morrowind when it first came out then the order would be different, and it may even change if I get into it more.

      I played them in order, and probably spent a lot more hours on Morrowind than the other two (maybe that had something to do with the lack of fast travel) but I still agree with your ranking. I think they've greatly improved the series over time, and I can't freakin wait to see what they come up with next for the new consoles.

    I enjoyed skyrim but some of the design choices confused or disappointed me. Like the mostly redundant lockpicking tree and the lack of unlocking spells or lockbreaking or any other form of door-rape that gave an alternative at least. And there was no unarmed skill tree man, what the hell?! And the skill trees felt a little shallow for weapons; daggers had a very small place in the one-handed tree, for example. There's lots of things I love but just a few pet peeves.

    I loved the darker setting at least. Morrowind was bloody awesome, so I don't mind it being in the lead...

    I'd say Morrowind > Skyrim > Oblivion but... See, you're right, Oblivion was pretty damn dull, however the modding community was superb; most of my hours in that game were owed completely to the mods I had installed. Vanilla Oblivion was dull and not really worth multiple playthroughs.

    I personally thought Oblivion was the best. I was a little young for Morrowind to be fair and haven't played anything before it. To me Skyrim just felt like a "pretty" oblivion

    Skyrim > Oblivion > Morrowind, mostly because Betesda seem to get better at squishing bugs with every release, except for Fallout:Vegas of-course.

    Morrowind > Skyrim > Daggerfall > Oblivion (haven't played arena).

    Morrowind > Skyrim > Daggerfall = Arena > Oblivion.

    Pretty sure Morrowind remains my all time most played game haha

    In my personal opinion, Skyrim is the best for me. The characters are so much more in-depth than the ones in the other games of the series, and the little throwbacks to the previous games (meeting Sheogorath, the little references to Martin Septim in a few books, the Blades, to name a few) just make it for me. It's definitely a continuation, and it is a vast improvement over the almost sterile feel of Oblivion.
    Don't get me wrong, I have logged close to 400 hours in Oblivion since release, I have leveled every character type you can possibly think of, making the game much easier, and also kind of more boring.
    However, I do believe it comes down to which platform you are playing it on. I own Skyrim on both 360 and PC, and I actually find that I enjoy playing it on my 360 more than my PC.
    Oblivion, on the other hand, I enjoy more on my PC. I don't know why this is so. I guess the interface of Oblivion just works better with a PC.

    Now, Skyrim's story is much more in-depth, in the sense that the characters are more engaging, and a lot of the side quests seem to have more relevance to the story. Oblivion, as I said, feels too... sterile. It's a little bit plain I guess. It's more of a case of tanking your character and that's it.
    Skyrim to me feels like so much more. I have fun just wandering around Skyrim, meeting the characters, doing small quests, having free reign to do what I please. Oblivion feels as if I am being told to immerse myself but it just doesn't quite work.

    One thing in both games which I really do not like is the way that NPCs don't recognise you.
    Skyrim: I am the fucking dragonborn, I am the leader of every guild and faction in the land, I have quelled the Vampire rising, I have killed Miraak, I have wandered the land, helping people, slaying dragons, felling giants, generally just being a fucking boss, yet no-body recognises me. When I started Dawnguard, and at the start the guy asks you who you are and why he should let you help, I felt like reaching into the TV, smacking him in the face and screaming Fus Ro Dah in his face. I am the fucking Dovahkiin, not some random dude coming in off the street.

    In Oblivion, this was also a major annoyance of mine. I had just single handedly closed every Oblivion gate. I am the leader of the Dark Brotherhood. I am a dark, feared person, yet no body fucking recognises me at all. I just feel that as you progress through the game, gaining fame, people should recognise you more, a la the Fable series. People recognise, fear, respect, or love or hate you, depending on your actions. It's those kinds of things which for me really make a game.

    I have not listed Morrowind, Arena or the other one (the name escapes me, and I cbf scrolling up to read it) because I have only played Morrowind briefly, maybe only have a lvl10 character, and the other two I have not even played.

    So, in conclusion, for me, the best game of the series is Skyrim. It's graphically beautiful, engaging, and above all, more fun.

    I liked Daggerfall, my character was great, I'd murder people, get caught by the guards, plead innocent(by lying) and get set free! :D Also, I loved bashing down doors with my fists.

    Where's Elder Scrolls Adventures: Redguard, man?. I quite enjoyed that one.

    Morrowind (GOTY).
    Skyrim.
    Oblivion (GOTY).
    Have not played the others.

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