Fire Emblem. This is offset by having lost units unrecoverable, which means the total size of your force is limited by how well you play. In addition, the support conversations allow for development of secondary characters without interrupting the main plot.
In Shadow Dragon, the game practically throws two to five new units at you every chapter up until halfway through the game. If you manage to recruit everyone, the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue will last nearly two minutes longer than the game's actual credits.
Though if you go for Gaiden chapters by killing off characters, the epilogue ends up looking like a mass funeral...
A simple example is the "relations" chart put together in Radiant Dawn, which showed the given relations between most of the major characters. It also served as the titular scorecard by which you could know the players. Warning, MASSIVE spoilers here◊ This is only the playable characters and super-major NPCs. Overall the game has 73 Playable characters almost all of which feel like fully developed characters. Well as fully developed as you can get when many can be removed the story any time the player fails.
This is actually zig-zagged in the Jugdral series, at least Genealogy of the Holy War. There is no Arbitrary Head Count Limit, and while the cast of (playable) characters looks about the average size of a Fire Emblem game, you only get to use about half at once due to the game's narrative. Of the 2nd half, a good portion of the characters you see on a list are merely substitute characters.
Resident Evil is knee-deep in this trope, partially due to such a long history and partially because of characters mentioned only in notes, secondary characters, tertiary characters, and characters that are present for only a short time before becoming zombie fodder. Any semi-comprehensive character list for the series has to be split up into subsections. Pilots not included.
Squaresoft's (now Square-Enix) Chrono Cross featured a cast of 45 playable characters - requiring the player to play through the game at least three times to get them all. Alas, the game only allows 3 characters to fight at a time. That also leads to ending up with a core group you like to use in battle all the time during the later parts of the game to the exclusion of most of the rest of the characters you collected along the way. And it makes outfitting the redundant characters an expensive proposition.
By the time you get to the end of the final chapter of Final Fantasy IV: The After Years, you'll have a party of 22 characters to choose from, although nearly half of them won't join you if you skip their chapters, up to 6 of those can be Lost Forever or Killed Off for Real even if you don't skip their chapters, and 2 of them have next to no dialogue to begin with and are optional anyways.
The sheer number of characters means that by the time you finish the game, you'll find that the total number of Combination Attacks between them exceeds even that of Chrono Trigger.
Final Fantasy VI has 14 regular playable characters, most of any main series FF game. There's an early-game section where you control ten Moogles as temporary PCs. There are a couple of dozen significant NPCs.
Shining Force. There is a limit of how many soldiers can be sent into any given battle, which leaves some of your forces perpetually on the bench.
The Sengoku Basara franchise has had 57 notable characters that have appeared throughout the series, with 47 characters having been playable at least once and 49 of them being fleshed out and plot-relevant.
Every Suikoden game has 108 characters you can acquire. This does not take into account the many named characters that are not part of the 108.
The Super Robot Wars spinoff Endless Frontier takes things even further- it's an RPG developed by Namco, taking the characters from the Original Generation universe, and crossing them over with various Namco characters, including original characters from their crossover strategy title Namco × Capcom (Who were, according to the developers, based loosely on original characters from Super Robot Wars, completing some sort of cycle)
Notable mention is Super Robot Wars Alpha series. Alpha 3 had the largest cast out of any SRW game and, if we put all the characters from all the timelines, would easily exceed 100 characters that are playable. If we include that NPC's, it would easily exceed 200 or even 300 characters.
Mortal Kombat Armageddon threw in every kharacter from all of the games in the series up to its point, including the boss kharacters, giving you over 60 playable kharacters.
Final Fantasy Tactics Almost any character that could go from a computer controlled ally combatant to a controllable character later would stop being important to the plot after you finally gain control of them. This was because you could refuse to let them join, later dismiss them, or have them be Killed Off for Real.
The PSP version throws fans of these characters a bone by including bonus missions (which flesh out the plot, but have no influence on it) where they take center stage again (as computer-controlled "Guests," natch.) However, since the player is free to refuse or dismiss these characters, it's entirely possible to never participate in their bonus missions.
Radiata Stories had 176 recruitable NPCs in addition to the main Player Character, which were split into two groups based on whether you sided with the humans or nonhumans in the middle of the game. Fortunately, it averted the upkeep problems that normally plague large parties (keeping them properly leveled and equipped): 1) you can't change their equipment, and 2) it's actually simpler to recruit new characters than level up old ones. (Especially since there's no Magic stat. Spells which do 300 damage at Lv.1 will still do 300 damage at Lv.100.)
Pokémon games fit this trope. Starting with Pokémon Gold and Silver, there have been hundreds of named human characters, on top of numerous supporting players and miscellaneous townsfolk throughout the various regions, as well as 718 types of Mons as of Pokémon X and Y (2013).
Also, there are about 45 Gym Leaders (eight gym leaders through five generations, with some changing from game to game, such as Juan replacing Wallace in Emerald Version).
Being one of the other famous Mons series (Digimon is mentioned in Anime/Manga), Shin Megami Tensei qualifies not only on sheer amount of recruitable demons, but also in the fact that those demons are oftenly involved with the plot. So it's kinda like Pokemon, if around half of the Pokemon were actually important characters.
The SkyrimmodInteresting NPCs has 70 characters at present with more than 125,000 words of dialogue, and many more are forthcoming.
The Metal Gear series when considered as a whole has an impressive list of main and supporting characters. The wiki lists 126.
Baldur's Gate features 25 NPCs who can join your party. The most you can have with you at any one time? Five. The sequel made it better by limiting it to 16 NPCs, then made it worse by making their individual storylines more involved, with almost every NPC having a major personal quest, some having two.
Alignment restrictions may make a portion of the cast unplayable if your reputation is too good/evil. Add onto this the fact that your main character can be from any class (meaning you may require certain characters to fill party roles), and the large number of characters are necessary to actually make a decent party.
Made even worse in 2 by the genuinely interesting interactions between many characters, and the fact that, while a large selection of characters is varied, there are a number of characters who stand out as far better than the others. Coupled with how memorable the game is (strongly limiting replay value), and it's incredibly unlikely that you'll ever experience the majority of different party make ups, forever preventing you from seeing some of the most amusing lines.
The other Infinity Engine games avoided this on two fronts. First, the Icewind Dale series had no premade NPCs- you created the entire party, top to bottom. Second, Planescape: Torment had only seven NPCs (of which you could put five in your party), several of which you had to solve elaborate and by no means mandatory puzzles or look behind the obvious in order to get.
Collecting the 28 playable characters (each with their own elaborated backstory) is a relevant part of the gameplay of Valkyrie Profile. These characters very soon become so numerous that the it's hard for the player to feel attachment for any one of them.
This is justifiable because the basic premise of the game requires that you train up einherjar and send them to Valhalla to fight for Odin. You are not supposed to get attached to most of them. Coincidentally, the plot important ones for the best ending cannot be sent up, except Lucian, who must be sent up, so you are more likely to use and get attached to them. This is the most noticeable with Arngrim since he is the absolute first character you get (and one of the better ones on top of it).
Valkyrie Profile 2 Silmeria ups the ante by having 13 main characters (in various guises) and forty einherjar. You'll need to have at least three save slots to have every character, since each "relic" has a list of one to three characters, of which only one is obtainable at a time. You can also lose einherjar permanently. On the other hand, unusually there's only a single bad guy and a tiny smattering of NPCs who aren't playable at some point (not counting one-off bosses who have no scenes).
Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume has about 19 playable characters (20 if you include Ancel the Guest and Crutch Character), and you have to play through the game three times on all three paths to get them all, since one playthrough will force you to take a path that will recruit one-or-two characters but also fight another as a boss. This also does not include the optional characters in the game that you get in the New Game+, many of which are either series characters or had appeared in Covenant of the Plume's story.
Fallout: New Vegas has 375 named NPC's that you can actually talk to and are important to quests, and hundreds more "NCR Trooper" or "Gambler" that you cannot.
Tokyo Majin Gakuen has 25 characters join the main hero, Tatsuma, and all have them have endings and the many supporting characters some of whom also have endings. Then there are all the villains and the different characters in the sequel, Gehouchou (all of whom are the ancestors of the main characters in the Kenpuuchou game) as well as the spin-off games and dramas.
The Summon Night series also has lots of characters and also has it's own continuity within the main games. Summon Night 2 in itself has loads of characters join the main character.
Ogre Battle has a lot of important figures in its storyline.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together has quite a bit. And like in Covenant of the plume, you can't recruit them all in one playthrough since taking one path will bar recruitment of some named characters, while taking another one may actually result in that character becoming a boss for that chapter or only showing up in the background. In Chapter 4, small variations on what you did may cause a character or someone related to show up.
But there are also some characters who join all the time, but have different roles or methods. For example, Haborym and Guildus will always show up in Chapter 3, but Haborym shows up in different roles, either being rescued or run into. Seleye will either join by an event or need to be rescued in battle, and in chapter 4, Kachua will either be hiding or actually in the battle against you.
Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis is similar, but much more simplistic. Taking the "A" path makes Shiven and Cybil join, while Orson becomes a boss and Rictor also is fought twice. Taking the "B" path makes Orson and Rictor join, Rictor is only fought once, and Cybil becomes a boss. No clue where Shiven is, as he doesn't show up until very late on that path. It has a much smaller cast than other Ogre Battle games.
Harvest Moon has 200+ different characters over its various continuities (many of whom are expies of one another). The Nintendo DS-original entries (Harvest Moon DS and HM DS: Island of Happiness) have over 100 characters by themselves. Even if you set aside background characters (characters you can talk to, but lack portraits), the games have between 20 and 30 major characters apiece, not including the player.
Most fighting games could be accused of this, but thankfully these characters rarely have any serious plot role. It is actually good, since in these games the relevance is in characters/opponents over levels generally.
Also, while there is a "sure" crew, many of the minor characters are scripted in and out in the blink of an eye... well, rather between games.
Touhou has accrued a substantial list of characters, and adds at least seven more in almost every game, only Shoot the Bullet not adding any. Discounting the PC-98 characters still leaves a good seventy, while even only including characters who have appeared in more than one game has several dozen remaining. This piece of fanart (NSFW due to advertisements) features all of them up to Double Spoiler, and gives some idea of the sheer scale of it.
F-Zero has had new characters in every game, with a huge jump from F-Zero to F-Zero X (30) and from F-Zero X to Maximum Velocity, though the number of new characters in each game has decreased after Maximum Velocity.
F-Zero GX has 41 playable characters, each with their own mini-biography, at least a dozen interview questions/responses, a theme song, and an unlockable CGI short.
For only being one game, the cast of Psychonauts is monumentally gigantic. This is especially remarkable given that they're all named and given voice-acting. 26 distinct characters at the camp, 9 at the abandoned asylum, and who knows how many within the mental worlds—though some of them are admittedly nameless NPCs.
The Super Mario Bros. series has a whole ton of characters in the series, with about 1300+ counted at present. In a similar way to the Sonic the Hedgehog series, most of the games and spinoffs put most of the characters on a bus after their first appearances, and the count that's actually appeared in multiple games or forms of media is probably about 1/15th of the total character count. That and the obvious Cast Herds where most characters are only found in one sub-series or media type.
Pop N Music, a Rhythm Game series with 16 main arcade releases so far, introduces about 15-20 new characters with every new installment.
Tekken 6 is catching up with around 41. Tag Tournament 2 has everyone who was playable in 6 (with Julia putting on a mask and calling herself "Jaycee" and Heihachi dialing back the odometer by a few decades) as well as three more returning characters from previous games (Jinpachi Mishima, Jun Kazama, and True Ogre). Then the console version steps it up even more, including all those characters and about 15 exclusive characters.
Infinite Undiscovery has a total of 18 characters, though most times only 3-4 at a time can be in the active party. There are instances of Let's Split Up, Gang where more of your characters will be active, though even in those cases you don't have direct control over more than just your party. Some of your characters are explicitly never able to join the main party and can only come out for combat in those instances of multiple parties. Some of the characters are more plot relevant than others, but most of them get at least a little development.
While Disgaea1 and 2 were stretching it with about 8-9 playable story characters per game, Disgaea 3 takes the cake with sixteen through the main story and playable epilogue. If that weren't enough, nearly every previous Disgaea character is downloadable, as well as a great number of characters from otherNippon Ichigames.
The Updated Re-release of Disgaea 2 is looking to beat Disgaea 3. Alongside the returning playable twelve (From both the main story and optional bosses), all the originally unplayable bosses are now playable, many of whom ended up appearing in Disgaea 3 as downloadable characters and adds half of the Disgaea 3 main cast. And if that weren't enough, the port will be getting the other half of the Disgaea 3 cast as well as characters from the otherNippon Ichigames as Downloadable Content.
Guild Wars currently has 27 heroes (customizable NPC party members). Despite this, you can only use seven of your heroes at a time. Through the in-game cash shop, you can even clone your Player Characters into Mercenaries, which are just personalized heroes for you to use. If you have not yet unlocked the heroes you want/need, you can also rely on henchman instead of human players, although their skills and equipment are usually not the best.
Super Smash Bros.. Brawl has a total of 39 player characters from 20 distinct series. The running joke when they were being revealed by the director week-by-week was "Which Nintendo characters aren't in Brawl?"
Super Smash Bros. for Wii U and 3DS looks to dethrone Brawl as having the most characters ever in a Smash game with 36 characters being confirmed. Specifically, 25 veterans and 11 newcomers have been shown as of July 2014, two months before the 3DS version launches in Japan.
Kingdom Hearts is this, though it's to be expected considering it's a crossover between Disney and Square Enix with a dose of original characters. It's usually easy to keep track of them because they're split between different worlds, but then came the sequels.
Chainof Memories and Kingdom Hearts II introduced Organization XIII, who all contain names with the letter X. In both games, most don't get any memorable screentime until Kingdom Hearts Days which makes it hard to distinguish between them and also brings in a few new characters that turn out to be different versions of Sora and not their own person.
If that wasn't enough, Birth by Sleep as the prequel introduces a whole load of new faces plus a few new faces of Xehanort, the master villain and now Kingdom Hearts 3D [Dream Drop Distance] is set to introduce characters from Square Enix's other game, The World Ends With You. You're gonna need a diagram to keep track of who's who.
If they ever did create a Street Fighter game with every character from the mainline SF universe (which includes Final Fight), then you'd have possibly the largest cast of any fighting game ever, and that's not counting the EX series.
The TimeSplitters series has made considerable increases in its multiplayer character roster, shooting up to 150 with the release of Future Perfect.
Impossible Creatures has all of these games beat, with 127,392 different possible creatures. There's an unfortunate amounts of Character Tiers despite the amount of creatures - on some water maps, Moosobsters are the only level 5 melee creatures worth using.
The Dynasty Warriors game series introduces more and more playable characters with each successive generation, culminating in Warriors Orochi 2, which has over 92 playable characters. That's not including all 30+ generic characters running around.
Warriors Orochi 3 has just over 130 playable characters, each with their own unique moveset, weapons, and voice acting. Advertisements prominently display this: this◊ is the Dynasty Warriors "half" of the cast alone! (The other "half" being Samurai Warriors, and the rest being exclusives to the Warriors Orochi trilogy plus crossovers from other Tecmo-KOEI titles.)
The Dynasty Warriors: Gundam series not only drew on the loads and loads of Gundam characters, there are also loads and loads of Mobile Suits available for the characters to pilot (the second game topped out at 62 suits).
City of Heroes, being a MMORPG naturally needs lots of characters, but many of them are remarkably fleshed out. However, its casual-friendly nature, immense customisation, and many character slots cause many players to fall into this trope, creating far more characters than they can handle. We call it 'Altitis', and it's actually somewhat encouraged.
In the Backyard Sports series, there are 30 (now22) main characters, each with their own theme song, personality, and abilities. And I'm not even mentioning the commentators, the secret kids, and the hundreds of NPCs in the game, who all have a name.
Over the years, the Ace Attorney series has accumulated a vast cast of quirky attorneys, prosecutors, victims, murderers, witnesses, et cetera.
Final Fantasy VII on its own had a good amount of characters, but the Compilation and it's various gaiden stories have increased the cast by a couple dozen or three.
Counting all of the recruitable characters and NPCs, Infinite Space has roughly 130-150 characters.
In the Mass Effect trilogy, the total number of people who can end up serving in Commander Shepard's Normandy crew adds up to about 21 squadmates and 24 other named and/or interactive crew members, plus several dozen other NPCs whom you'll probably never pay any attention to. And that's only the tip of the iceberg that is the Mass Effect cast; currently, this series has thirteen different character pages. Those pages still lack several story and side-quest relevant characters, and the various unnamed (but popular!) background NPCs like Refund Guy or Valley Girl Quarian and Friend-Zone Turian!
Agarest Senki has no less than 34 playable characters, plus up to 6 captured monsters who can also join your party. Many of them are killed off to keep the headcount manageable, but then you can bring them back through alchemy. Or you could save money and just play the True End route and have all the dead characters back in the party for free.
Banjo-Kazooie has just the villain, the eponymous duo, and a few mentors as important characters, but the supporting cast of the series is huge. A poster was made for Banjo-Tooie containing all of the characters. They fill up the poster pretty well.
R-Type Final has 101 playable ships, although only three are initially unlocked. All of them have different weapons sets, and some of them are from earlier games in the series.
Ōkami is a pro at this. Every villager in every town and city is completely different, everyone actually has a name (if Nameless Man counts as a name). The Dragonians, Sparrows, and the Oina tribe could have been easily written off as different examples of a Planet of Hats, but instead are all completely unique. Even the Emperor's Red Shirt Army has a variety of guards that are actually necessary to forward the plot. What's additionally surprising is that about 99% of the characters from this 40-hour long game actually all have official art.
Both Paladins Quest and its sequel Lennus II feature a surprising number of recruitable mercenaries for being SNES-era games.
Alpha Protocol does this, but it's made even worse that every single person you meet has some kind of secret agenda, and will try to manipulate you to their ends. It's a Gambit Pileup, except there really are that many gambits going on at once.
Inazuma Eleven has a Cast of Snowflakes of over 1,000 characters you can recruit and add to your team. The sequels expand on the cast; in the third game, the headcount has broken 2,000.
The cast of Nasuverse works tend to be immense. Ahem:
Tsukihime starts with your hero, his friend, five heroines, one almost heroine, three bad guys and a side character or two. Kagetsu Tohya adds Len, a few members of Akiha's extended family, Shiki's doctor, the doctor's daughter, Nanako and more. Melty Blood then adds Sion, Tatari and more to that and then there's all the side material.
Fate/stay night has Shirou, three main heroines, one girl who didn't quite make it to heroine status, nine Servants, another four or five Masters, Taiga, Issei and numerous supporting characters. This may not count under normal circumstances, but when Fate/hollow ataraxia came around all these characters had greatly expanded roles, plus a couple of characters added, giving an impressively high headcount.
The Animal Crossing series has, amongst the 16 different human player characters and the several NPCs, more than 300 different villagers of many different species and 6 unique personalities (8 in New Leaf) that can move into and live in your town. In Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS, the probability of two players starting off with the same six initial villagers is less than a hundredth of a percent.
The mildly obscure NES RPG Destiny of an Emperor featured over 100 recruitable officers, and several unrecruitable NPCs. Then again, it is based on Romance of the Three Kingdoms.
The Japan exclusive 3d fighting game Tobal 2 features over 200 playable characters. Most of them are monsters that you can capture in Quest Mode, and several of those are Palette Swaps.
Pick a Nippon Ichi game. Any of them. Good luck trying to organize that mess. It gets worse in Soul Nomad & the World Eaters where many of the characters you can gain are story and plot important. Sometimes it just gets worse when characters from other games pop in for cameos, actually continuing the story of another game slightly.
Good Lord, has the Sonic the Hedgehog series evolved into this trope. A series that started with two characters has since grown to having around two dozen main characters (and that's not even counting the one-game wonders). This isn't including two distinct versions of Sonic, Tails, and Eggman. There became so many characters by around the time of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006) that future games in the series attempted to cut down on the number of characters, so that when Sonic Colors came around, the recurring cast was trimmed back to just Sonic, Tails, and Eggman (although there's a character unique to Colors called Yacker, and many other characters, including Big, Silver, Espio, and Blaze, make cameo appearances in side missions in the DS version). It's amazing when you consider that this game was released in 2010; this feat of a three-character Sonic game hadn't been achieved since Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which was released in 1992.
Exit Fate has 75 playable characters, from knights and bards and wizards, to a scientist, a necromancer and his project, a war correspondent, a rock musician and an aristocratic talking cat. As well as a large number of non-playable characters. All with interesting appearances and fleshed-out backstories. The game is often called a spiritual successor to Suikoden.
The Dragonball Z Budokai Tenkaichi games are known for their huge rosters, taking characters from the original series as well as Z, GT and the movies. While the first game had a rather ordinary roster size, the second had 129 characters, and the third had 161.
Dangan Ronpa begins with 15 high school students with special talents trapped within a school that has been converted to a Closed Circle. Before they start killing each other, it appears that any of them could be the main characters.
Assassin's Creed definitely qualifies. The first game had a pretty small cast, generally consisting of player character Altair, eleven assassination targets (including an imposter), a few other important Assassins and Richard the Lionheart, but subsequent titles introduce many more: Ezio's trilogy have a large number of assassination targets in each game and even more historical characters, and Assassin's Creed III introduces a very large number of historical characters as allies of player character Connor Kenway, as well as a large number of civilian NPCs that can settle at the Davenport Homestead and the assassination targets. And that's not even considering the brotherhoods of each game, and while most of them are on-the-spot NPCs with little to no characterization, all of the recruits from Assassin's Creed III have rather detailed back stories. Leaked information and teasers for Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag indicate that there will be loads and loads of characters in the Golden Age of Piracy setting as well.
The Papa Louie series of time management games currently contains 80+ customers to stop in at your latest eatery. While none of them have any personality, they do at least all look different.
The Sims series, in addition to allowing you to create vast numbers of playable Sims (you can have up to 8 in any one house, including apartments), generates a lot of NPC's including University classmates, stray pets, service personnel, and "Townies" (anyone who's none of the above.)