Bethesda is simultaneously one of the most maligned and most revered game development studios in the industry today. I have more than my fair share of grievances with Bethesda (seriously, is Fallout 5 ever going to happen?), but some of the animosity the studio receives seems to stem solely from how incredible their games are. Without a doubt, the most incredible series in their roster, the series that made Bethesda a household name, is Elder Scrolls.
The Elder Scrolls series has gone through immense changes over the years, transitioning from a dungeon-crawling, procedurally-generated RPG to a masterfully-crafted, open-world setting riddled with secrets, easter eggs, and the unspoken stories for which Bethesda has become so famous.
Without further ado, I’d like to take you all on a little journey through the main Elder Scrolls games ranked from worst to best.
The Elder Scrolls Games Ranked From Worst to Best
Starting at #5, let’s work our way down to the best of the Elder Scrolls titles.
5. The Elder Scrolls: Arena
- Developer: Bethesda Softworks
- Release Date: March 25, 1994
- Platform(s): MS-DOS
The Elder Scrolls: Arena isn’t a bad game. I put this entry at the bottom of the list because it shows Bethesda’s baby steps into the massive world of Elder Scrolls.
Before this game, Bethesda primarily developed sports and action games. It’s almost unbelievable that this studio could come out with a world as intricate as that portrayed in the Elder Scrolls, considering their main prior projects of Hockey League Simulator and Wayne Gretzky Hockey (fascinating though their worlds were, I’m sure).
This game set the template for all future entries in the series shockingly well, considering it was a product of the late ’90s. The major points in the lore were established almost immediately, with the Septim Empire, the dating system, the monsters and magic, and the continent of Tamriel itself. Furthermore, until Elder Scrolls: Online came out, it was the only game in which the player had the freedom to explore all the provinces of Tamriel.
And that’s another very important point — this game world was massive. Not just in lore, but in literal area. The playable world, through which the player could freely roam, was six million square miles (for reference, Russia is about 6.6 million square miles). In essence, you get to explore a whole country’s worth of dungeons, cities, and high fantasy.
The downside is that the writers didn’t have time to put together a Russia-sized history in a realistic timeline. As such, apart from some specially scripted regions, most of the world is procedurally generated and devoid of the depth boasted by later entries. Furthermore, the map’s ambitious size meant a lot of dubious advertising, such as claiming that it was possible to walk from one major city to another (which many unfortunate people had to debunk by walking until they fell asleep). Finally, the gameplay itself is somewhat on the clunky side.
Some of the mechanisms they included are pretty cool in concept but awkward in practice. One such example is the need to click and swipe your mouse across the screen to simulate swinging a sword. On top of that, the gameplay has been widely noted as brutally unforgiving to new players. Even the first dungeon is extremely difficult to pass. The future lead designer of Morrowind himself stated that he started the game twenty times and made it out of the tutorial dungeon only once.
The game certainly had its shortcomings, but the introduction of the Elder Scrolls lore combined with the open world and pioneering of some of the series’s iconic mechanics set the stage for Bethesda to continue taking the gaming world by storm.
4. The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
- Developer: Bethesda Softworks
- Release Date: September 20, 1996
- Platforms: MS-DOS
The feedback on Arena helped streamline future games, but there are growing pains when applied to any lesson. In Daggerfall, we see Bethesda attempting to respond to fan complaints about the world — the hollowness of randomly generated towns and the isolation that comes from a lot of empty space even in a beautiful open world.
Daggerfall uses the fantastic world laid out in Arena, but with very different ambitions regarding the world map. While players could explore the entire continent of Tamriel in Arena, Daggerfall focused on the provinces of High Rock and Hammerfell.
The playable world was scaled down to permit a more connected playable world, without the infinite crawls between settlements that characterized Arena. Daggerfall was not by any means small, however. Bethesda claimed that Daggerfall‘s world was the same size as Great Britain — even if this isn’t exactly true, it’s safe to say that the world is huge. Featuring over 15,000 settlements and 750,000 NPCs, the world is functionally impossible to fully explore and provides a sense of boundlessness often compared to 2016’s No Man’s Sky.
Given this comparison, it’s no surprise that similar complaints came out about Daggerfall, with people complaining that the world felt impersonal, as though the player’s actions were merely incidental on the world around them. This argument cuts both ways, however — many players have praised the experience of role-playing in a world in which their character isn’t a celebrity who fixes everything. The fact that the world feels more lived-in and independent of the player character is aided by the revitalized playstyle — the game introduces guilds, the ability to purchase houses, and a magic system complete with custom spells.
I would call Daggerfall Bethesda’s grand experiment. If you can overlook the low graphics (I suppose we’re all somewhat spoiled by contemporary games) and the occasional clunky procedural generation, this is truly a game in which you can live an entire second life. It’s a phenomenal work of art, but it’s not incredibly streamlined. Bethesda would take this to heart for its subsequent Elder Scrolls entries.
3. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
- Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
- Release Date: March 20, 2006
- Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360
I am sure some people are already plotting my grisly demise for putting Oblivion so low on the list, but please hear me out.
Oblivion marked the point at which Bethesda both became more ambitious with their story-telling. Without giving away too much, the plot radically shifts the setting of Elder Scrolls and will likely continue to ripple through all future entries in the series. Oblivion is essentially the first game in which the plot clearly and profoundly impacts Tamriel.
The game’s biggest weakness comes from the new combat system. Where all previous games had largely modeled their combat off of tabletop RPGs, Oblivion’s combat style is much more reminiscent of modern RPGs — you swing the sword, you hit the enemy.
The problem here arose from Bethesda’s attempt to rebalance combat difficulty in this new system. In past games, the combat’s statistical nature permitted enemies to have realistic health levels — high skill with a particular weapon let players feel as though their character had become skilled with the weapon. A longsword felt like a longsword.
Bethesda attempted to compensate for the lack of randomness by scaling enemies with the player level. Theoretically, this would ensure combat remained challenging; in practice, it broke immersion when slashing at the same enemy a dozen times with a longsword felt like poking them with a toothpick.
Furthermore, Oblivion ratcheted up the level-based restrictions on gear availability. When Daedric gear only becomes available once it’s about as useful as steel gear was in the early game, it’s hard to feel any satisfaction in obtaining what’s supposed to be top-tier equipment.
In summary, the gameplay can be frustrating at times, but Oblivion‘s story and world definitely make it worth playing.
2. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
- Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
- Release Date: May 1, 2002
- Platforms: PC, Xbox
Morrowind is fascinating for the transitional period it represents in the series’s development. It marks the point at which Bethesda scaled-down the playable world to a manageable size, permitting the developers to finally discard procedural generation and construct a deep and immersive world from the ground up.
Despite Morrowind‘s new approach to world-building, the combat system still maintained that statistical edge from the older entries. As a result, Morrowind is a unique beast among Bethesda’s games. The vast array of weaponry available allows for countless playstyles, and the statistical combat system allows a player to really feel powerful in every role they take on.
Morrowind‘s story may not have the same kind of visible, lasting impact on Tamriel. But the massively expanded lore does provide ample opportunities to experience the epic sensation of seeing something profound and legendary. Considering the limited graphics capabilities of its time, the game’s encounters still manage to be aesthetically striking.
The hybrid playstyle certainly takes some getting used to for players accustomed to either the games before or the game that followed, but the experience of Morrowind truly can’t be replicated by any other game.
1. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
- Developer: Bethesda Game Studios
- Release Date: November 11, 2011
- Platforms: PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, Switch
It may seem a bit of a cop-out to place the most recent main entry in the series at the top of this list of all Elder Scrolls games ranked. But one really can’t overstate just how much of a lasting impact this game has had.
For one, Skyrim came out almost ten years ago. Literally half a lifetime back, yet it’s managed to stay relevant all this time. Despite the massive increase in graphics since its release, it continues to be one of the most visually striking games of all time. The nature scenes can even now be easily mistaken for actual photographs, and that’s to say nothing of the dazzling imagery that one can encounter throughout the main story. For a decade-old game to continue to be competitive with the visual appeal of contemporary games is nothing short of miraculous.
Honestly, the visual elements of this game alone would render it a masterpiece, but the amount of lore Skyrim adds to Elder Scrolls is baffling. The game essentially reinvents the world in a way that seamlessly flows from the stories of past games, introducing new, compelling factions, incredibly complex characters, and even a grand narrative that cleanly ties together all games that came before it.
On top of all that, the character leveling system feels almost indescribably cleaner. From Daggerfall to Oblivion, character creation largely dictated what skills your character could master, and leveling was a fairly grindy process. Skyrim theoretically allows one to completely change playstyles halfway through the game. The new system of perks and experience also allows faster leveling by maxing one particular skill tree, giving a much more realistic “practice makes perfect” feeling to character development.
The number of entirely new mechanics added to this game is astounding. I could write an entire article on just the new mechanics and how well they fit into the plot. There are visible ramifications of player choices, an entirely new system of magic, and, of course, the long-awaited dragons.
High Ground View
The Elder Scrolls games all rank among the greatest video games ever made, and more recent installments are sure to go down in history. Please feel free to tell us about your favorite Elder Scrolls title in the comments, and subscribe to our email list for more content like this.