16. SaGa Frontier (Square Product Development Division 2, 1998)
The SaGa franchise is one of Square's longest-running, but most divisive ones, being praised for its creative design elements and bizarre atmosphere but criticized for its esoteric design and extreme difficulty. SaGa Frontier is the franchise's best in my book, doing away with many annoying elements of earlier games (Random encounters, breakable weapons, sporadic character growth) and providing another fun, imaginative and well-designed open world RPG. The game is less of a thirty-hour epic adventure, though, and more of an anthology series, featuring seven short stories in a common world with a lot of overlap between characters, sidequests and even some parts of the storyline, but each is ultimately its own separate arc. Unfortunately, the game was also rushed, with several of the stories (particularly Asellus and Blue's) having significant portions cut for time constraints. The result is a game with uneven difficutly and often unclear objectives. Still, its solid gameplay, flashy visuals, a great soundtrack and a truly captivating atmosphere shine through, making it an underrated, unique and fun RPG for the platform.
14. Dragon Warrior VII (Heartbeat, 2001)
13. Strider 2 (Capcom, 2000)
At the time the seventh Dragon Quest came out on the Playstation, it had been nearly a decade since the last western release for the series (4 on the NES, no less) and the Playstation 2 had already been on the market for some time, so it came as more than a bit of a surprise It also spent over three years in development, first beginning as a 64DD game before moving to the Playstation and being pushed back numerous times on top of that to add more content and polish the experience. They certainly made every effort to make it worth the wait, though, as Dragon Warrior VII is easily one of the longest, most content-packed RPGs seen to that date, with a minmum 80-100 hours of content crammed into two discs. Having a more advanced version of Dragon Quest VI's class system, plenty of sidequests and minigames to experience, and a very grandiose main storyline all combine to make a solid game. Shame it was also the last game Enix would release before they closed their western branch and underwent their famous merger with Square Enix (which also resulted in a planned localization of 4's remake on the PS1 being canned).
Capcom's formal apology for the gigantic turd "Strider Returns" on the Sega Genesis, Strider 2 brought the series back with style. Featuring 2D sprites imposed onto 3D environment and much tighter controls and gameplay than its predecessor, Strider 2 was fast-paced, arcade styled fun as you mowed your way through soldiers, robots, jets and anything else that stood in your way. It even had some fun new powerups, like a "blade beam" that could even be fired into the background or foreground to destroy otherwise inaccessible enemies. Baddie-slasing fun at its best.
Fun fact: The game was packaged with a second disc that contained the original Strider arcade game; however, the labels of the discs were mistakenly switched, meaning that the disc labeled "Strider 2" was really Strider 1 and vice versa...
12. Resident Evil 2 (Capcom, 1998)
The original Resident Evil was a huge hit for the Playstation, defining the term "survival horror" and inspiring a ton of copycats and spinoff series. Its sequel's development was a protracted one, even famously being entirely thrown out and restarted from scratch at one point, but it ended up being well worth the wait. It definitely ups the ante from the start, putting you in a Raccoon City police station overrun by zombies and having you uncover a vast conspiracy therein. Featuring a unique dual scenario system (the game changing slightly depending on which character you play through as first), a ton of new creepy monsters and a lot of unlockable goodies for finishing the game with a high enough rank. It's still regarded as the series' best by many fans, so it stands the test of time too.
11. Bust a Groove (Metro Graphics, 1998)
I never got into the Guitar Hero/Rock Band fad, nor was I ever really that big a fan of music games in general. There are a scattered few that manage to win me over, though, and one of those was Bust a Groove. A briliant combination of a one-on-one fighter and a timing-based rhythm game where you try to outdo your opponent by inputting timed button presses in lengthy sequences, and can even occasionally attack your opponent in order to interrupt their combo and lower their score. It also features a ton of wacky characters like a disco dancer, a pair of silver aliens, a giant robot and even a dancing mouse. Silly, ridiculous fun with a fantastic soundtrack, Bust a Groove is still among my favorite music games to date
10. Chrono Cross (Square, 2000)
The followup to Chrono Trigger in story (kinda), but worlds apart in in art style, gameplay and tone. Especially because this one focuses not on time travel as its central mechanic, but on two similar but separate parallel worlds. As Serge, a boy living in one world who crosses to the other (where his counterpart is very deceased and most people seem generally worse off), you end up entwined in a complex plot seeking the Frozen Flame, facing a mysterious foe called Lynx, and meeting an enormous cast of characters - 39 in all to play as, in fact. It reminds me a lot of Final Fantasy 6 in some ways, feeling like a mishmash of story threads rather than a well-woven whole, but sometimes that can be fun too - many of the subplots and environments are vividly imaginative, and being able to take numerous paths through the story was a relatively novel thing for console RPGs in 2000. It's also a lavishly produced game, with some downright gorgeous visual effects (easily the best the PS1 had on offer) and a fantastic soundtrack by Yasunori Mitsuda that remains one of the finest in gaming to this day. I wasn't a big fan of the overly flowery, self-indulgent writing or stark departure in tone from the light-hearted fun of the original, but there's some great experiences to be had in Chrono Cross regardless.
9. Final Fantasy IX (Squaresoft, 2000)
While Final Fantasies VII and VIII brought in many new fans to the franchise and helped put the Playstation 1 on the map, they left a lot of long-time fans of the franchise disillusioned for abandoning nearly every familiar element of their design. The ninth entry was Square's attempt to address that, combining the cinematic and graphical capabilities of the PS1 with gameplay, aesthetics and design much more reminiscent of the 8 and 16-bit entries. The end result was in a way the best and worst of both worlds, with a lot of the familiar job classes, abilities and overall balance returning, but still a lot of overlong spell animations, tedious minigames and a lot of lengthy, unskippable cutscenes and FMVs. Regardless, though, Final Fantasy IX did its job, charming fans of both Final Fantasy worlds and providing an RPG experience that easily ranks among the system's best.
8. Lunar: Silver Star Story (Game Arts/Japan Art Media, 1999)
A remake of the brilliant Sega CD RPG, Lunar sported colorful graphics, impeccable design, a fantastic soundtrack and animation and voice acting on par with that of a big budget animated movie. Not only was it voice acted, but the FMV scenes were fully animated, hand drawn and gorgeous to behold, even sporting some song numbers that rival many of the memorable Disney films in quality. Pair that up with some brilliantly written characters, impeccable dialog and some very challenging gameplay and you have a truly unforgettable experience. An absolute classic RPG.
7. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Konami, 1997)
It's hard to believe that Sony very nearly passed on releasing this game in North America, as it's not only a contender for the best game in the Castlevania series, but one of the greatest games ever made, period. Symphony of the Night takes the sidescrolling formula of Castlevania and expands it into a full-fledged Metroid style adventure with some RPG elements for good measure. There are a huge variety of items, abilities and weapons to equip and use, giving the gameplay some substantial variety, as well as TWO gigantic castles to explore laden with secrets, traps and gigantic bosses. Not to mention some great visuals, an excellent soundtrack and some campy yet strangely endearing voice acting. While I'm generally more of a fan of the old action platformer Castlevanias due to their straightforward yet challenging gameplay, there's no denying that this one is great as well, even if it feels a bit like overkill in the sheer amount of weapons, abilities and spells given to the player. Too bad it led into a lot of uninspired rehashes on the Game Boy and DS and eventually to this dreck
6. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue (Game Arts/Vanguard Works, 2000)
The sequel to the remake to the legendary Sega CD RPG. Lunar 2: Eternal Blue carries over all of the improvements the first game's remake brought - cleaned up graphics, higher quality FMVs, and having several superfluous areas cut to give the game a tighter and more focused feel. At its core, though, it's more of the same Lunar magic to love with its great storyline, brilliant dialog and some of the most well developed characters in any RPG ever released, as well as its surprisingly challenging gameplay. It was also published by Working Designs, which means it came in a deluxe box with a lot of cool goodies including a foil cover, hardcover manual, cloth map and even a nifty preorder bonus in the form of a Ghaleon punching puppet
. Fun stuff.
5. Final Fantasy VII (Squaresoft, 1997)
It's almost a staple of any Playstation top list, but there really is no denying that Final Fantasy VII was a major game-changer for its time, taking a genre mostly known for its grinding and complex dungeon-mapping and turning it into something much more dynamic and cinematic in nature. Its claims of having a "cast of thousands" were more than a bit exaggerated, but there was certainly an attempt made at giving it a grandiose feel with its high-stakes storytelling, intense action scenes and complex characters, as well as pervading psychological themes throughout that gave its characters significant depth. It may not hold up quitr as well today due to its unbalanced gameplay, aged visuals and themes that have been overused to the point of inanity, but Final Fantasy VII was nothing short of breathtaking in the mid-to-late 90s.
4. Final Fantasy Tactics (Squaresoft, 1998)
Final Fantasy Tactics was a new take for the series, combining the turn-based, grid-driven combat of Tactics Ogre with the mix-and-match class system of Final Fantasy 5 for some truly fantastic and challenging gameplay. The storytelling is also surprisingly grim for the series, weaving an intriguing political tale that gradually transforms into something more deep and sinister, and never once does it pull a punch when it comes to its darker moments. The gameplay is intricate, challenging and never feels stale or repetitive as every battle requires a great deal of forethought, planning and improvisation. Even the presentation is a treat, with some well-animated 2D sprites in detailed 3D environments and a tense orchestral soundtrack backing every battle. It may get ridiculously unbalanced in its late stages, but FFT is easily the standout game in the series in my book.
3. Metal Gear Solid (Konami, 1998)
A revival of the Metal Gear franchise, which most North American gamers only got exposure to through the not-so-great NES port of the original game and its lackluster sequel. We would later get the original MSX versions as a pack-in bonus with Solid 3, but in the meantime we were perfectly content to enjoy this masterpiece on its own merits. Featuring some strategic yet surprisingly fast-paced stealth gameplay, as well as some moody orchestral music and intense boss fights. But of course, the real draw was in its heavily cinematic gameplay; with some very high quality voice acting and a story laden with political elements, betrayal, intrigue and some ingeniously crafted characters, Metal Gear was a thriller that kept you glued to your TV from start to finish. Just a pity they couldn't keep the plausible edge to the whole thing going throughout subsequent sequels and the stories just got sillier and sillier as the franchise went on...
2. Grandia (Game Arts, 1999)
Another excellent RPG franchise from Game Arts had its origins on the Saturn and Playstation. With the same great humor and character writing as Lunar, the detailed 3D environments with real-time gameplay elements from Xenogears, great music, solid voice acting for the era and a fun adventure story, Grandia was the total package. Not only that, it featured what is arguably the greatest combat system in any RPG, allowing the player to delay an enemy's turns or even cancel them entirely with a well-placed attack. Not only one of the best games of its era, but still a brilliant, light-hearted and fun adventure that holds up amazingly well
to this day. Grandia is a true classic.
1. Suikoden II (Konami, 1999)
Yes indeed. Suikoden II is my choice for the best game on the Playstation 1, as well as one of the absolute best RPGs ever made. Taking everything that made the original great and pushing it to eleven, the game is an absolute treat. Beautifully rendered 2D visuals, an enormous cast of masterfully-written characters, a well-woven political storyline that keeps the player enthralled from start to finish and hell, even a touch of the minigame-oriented diversions that other mega-hits like Super Mario RPG and Final Fantasy VII provided, Suikoden II had it all. It even has my pick for the most heart-wrenching ending of any video game I have ever played, and that's no mean feat. Unfortunately, I know that not many people got the chance to experience this gem, and may very well never get the chance to because of its extremely limited release. If only Konami would remember that this series existed so they could finally give this game the wider audience it deserves...
(Update: It was finally released on the PSN as of December 9, 2014. Six years
after the original game!)