This is my list, and it only includes games I've played, one game per series. So if your favorite isn't on the list, drop me a line and convince me to add it to a further list! There are certainly enough RPG's to do so!
10. Faxanadu - Rounding out this list is a game I almost forgot about. This was the 2nd RPG I tried, having played it in 1991 at the age of 10. This game is part of a much larger series in Japan from Nihon Falcom that also includes Legacy of the Wizard. This game plays similar to Zelda II, but with more weapons, items, and magic. This game was unusual at the time of its release, having a very earthy presentation rather than the typical bright colors and sprites found in most NES games. A standout NES game, even with its long passwords or "mantras".
9. Zelda II - The Adventure of Link - Criminally underrated and the only true Zelda RPG with a traditional experience, life, and magic system. A bold step for the series, it changed pretty much everything from the first game. I favor the advanced combat system because it seems to get better every time I play, requiring quick reflexes to defeat the enemies. The only Zelda combat that comes close is fighting Ironknuckles in Ocarina. The Palace music is awesome as well.
8. Dead Rising - A recent choice, a greater emphasis on weapons and killing of the undead may make people forget that this game has quite a great RPG system, with Frank learning new and powerful moves throughout. This system is abusable due to the way in which saving works or enemy glitches, but if played straight through the game's missions, it is quite a fun trip. The best part is the inexplicable feeling of acceptance that you get as you come to believe a mere photographer is capable of these moves. Remember, Frank West's COVERED WARS!
7.Terranigma - The best game of Quintet's SoulBlazer trilogy on the SNES. You play as a character named Ark in a traditional RPG level system but with the real time combat of Secret of Mana or Kingdom Hearts. Ark has quite a variety of moves to damage foes, learnt as you level up. The magic system is also unique, with the player forging spell rings from magirocks that are found. This somewhat convoluted system may force you to forego magic, but it is a necessity on some bosses. The story is great also, with a meaningful quest, some touching moments (like the encounter with the wildlife in the snow) and some puzzling and unexpected surprises. Memorable music, like Evergreen as well as responsive control round out this game and our 7th entry.
6.Seiken Densetsu 3 - The 3rd Mana game, released only in Japan but made available in 1999 as the second highest profile fan translation after Final Fantasy V on the SNES. This game takes a lot of Secret of Mana and turns it on its ear, with a more traditional equip system and fighting system. Hurrah for not having to charge to level 7 against a Terminator of Light only to miss! The story is still pretty out there and the music about the same quality wise, but it is the new class system that shoots Seiken 3's replay into the stratosphere. At two specific levels, your characters are able to change their classes, gaining new light/dark affinities and new attacks. With 6 distinct characters, you have lots of choices! Speaking of replay, which character you chose at the start affects more than just who you play as at the start!
5. Castlevania:Symphony of the Night - I've already shown my love for this game in a series of sublime Symphony Reviews covering all its various releases. But let's do it again because SOTN is frickin' awesome! The game changed everything about Castlevania, making it into an RPG while having plenty of familiarity to connect with traditional Castlevania fans. In Symphony, you play as Alucard, who has risen from an eternal sleep to kick some ass in his homeland, and he has lots of ways to kick it! Swords, knuckles, magic, familiars, shape shifting, old school subweapons, Alucard's got it all! And when the words "level up" flash onto the screen in a mist-like way, you know you're playing one for the ages! SOTN was so influential, its system is the basis for Castlevania games to this day, now that's staying power. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, just modify it! GREAT SUCCESS!
4. Vagrant Story - Released in 2000, the year of Square EA that led to more Square games being released in the US that any other year, Vagrant Story is a highlight amongst them as a standalone game. One of the 9 games to receive a perfect score from Famitsu, and the only one on the Playstation, Vagrant Story is a masterpiece of graphics, gameplay, music, and fun. A shoutout to Alexander O. Smith for making the US release better than the JPN release due to his use of anachronistic English for all the characters. This and the comic like speech panels really help give Vagrant Story a unique presentation.
This game stars Ashley Riot, a Riskbreaker in the land of Ivalice (of FF Tactics and FFXII fame), who is tasked by the VKP to pursue cult leader, Sydney Losstarot to the ancient city of Lea Monde. It is within these walls that all Ashley thought he knew will be tested. Vagrant Story's gameplay is totally unique among RPG's and perhaps a little complicated with its affinities weapon system, RISK system, break arts, and chaining combat system. Forging armor and weapons can require a sleight hand as well. The story is definitely approachable to any RPG fans, but it is the mysteries and nuances its possesses that elevates it to top RPG storydom (if that's a word).
Lastly, this game is responsible for one of the only things that G4 did right even when they focused on gaming. Vagrant Story was rightly named Filter's Top Underrated Game of All Time. Quite a surprise that the braindead voters of G4 around 2004 had even heard of this game! (See Filter's abysmal Final Fantasy episode if you need proof!)
3.Xenogears - Released in 1998, another great year for Squaresoft, Xenogears is the pinnacle of RPG storytelling and the most ultimately compelling plot I've ever seen in a video game. I only wish the Perfect Works book didn't have such a dull air in its US translations. I missed out on the game for several years as I foolishly avoided it on the basis of one Gamepro review that declared Xenogears had "plodding dialogue, a relentlessly slow plot, and a fumbled Gear/character gameplay interface system". That reviewer couldn't be more wrong. The gameplay is handled with simplicity and grace, being similar to Vagrant Story with linking combat moves and a traditional magic based system. The Gears interface is pretty much the same, but fuel is an added concern.
The story is indeed complicated and hard to follow at times, this is more likely due to bad translations than anything else. The game's supposed jabs at Christianity stemmed from such mistranslations. At the same time, it is very compelling, and during a conversation late in the game, I paused the game to take it all in, amazed at its quality.
Music is another Mitsuda masterpiece. Believe it or not, I believe Xenogears is more consistently excellent musically than Chrono Trigger, quite an accomplishment indeed!
2. The Chrono Series - I was going back and forth over which game to include here, does Trigger's superior gameplay win out, or Cross's brilliant storyline? So I went back and forth, and then I decided to put both on this list! It's my list, so I can do whatever the hell I want!
Trigger, was released on the SNES in 1995 and a currently definitive edition on the DS in Nov 2008. This game is a culmination of everything that is excellent about traditional RPG's, with some flash in its tech arts system to make it legendary! Great characters, involving storyline, and the best secret character of all time make Trigger an awesome time! The music by Yasunori Mitsuda is another triumph for video game music, and only trumped by our number one choice.
Cross, released on PSX in August 2000 was bemoaned by Trigger's biggest fanboys for its failure to continue Crono's adventures. Thinking back on Trigger's storyline, Crono and his friends had a pretty lackadaisical attitude about changing history for their benefit, assuming that whatever they desired would automatically benefit all life. Cross deals with the consequences of such one-sided thinking. This is why I think Cross's story is the best storyline in gaming history, but because it owns much to Trigger, it only really works for those familiar with the previous game. Masato Kato penned Xenogears in between Trigger and Cross, so the pedigree of the Chrono storyline seemed to benefit from the labyrinthine and evocative tale that is Xenogears .
Cross's gameplay is also a drastic departure, with no more MP or many combo techs. Instead we have an element system that emphasizes using physical attacks as a way to access magic. It is different to be sure, but just as playable as Trigger, perhaps better in that it is the rare RPG that gives the player an actual reason to use the defend command at times. I do bemoan how easy the game becomes when you are able to buy heal-alls elements though.
Regardless of which is actually better, both are must play games for any RPG fan. Thoughtful gamers will no doubt come to appreciate both as masterpieces!
1. Final Fantasy VI - Not only the best RPG of all time, but the best game of all time! Final Fantasy VI is the culmination of all that is good and right about RPG's, the SNES, and video gaming in total! It saddens me to know that many "fans" of Final Fantasy refuse to play this game due to its 2D graphics. I was shocked to learn this around 2001, but it is true.
FFVI has the most unique system of all Final Fantasies, allowing any character in the party at most any time. Add the fact that every character possesses a unique skill, giving you many many ways to play this game. I myself have played natural magic and only 3 character playthroughs, they are quite challenging, bringing something different to the magnum opus that is Final Fantasy VI!
Kefka is far more than an insane clown, by the end of the game he had progressed from a power hungry madman to a Zod-like character, almost bored with his phenomenal power, then culminating in a nihilistic archetype that seeks the destruction of existence.
Finally, even the creators of Final Fantasy VI seem to implicitly acknowledge it as their greatest creation. What other FF possesses a 20+ minute ending sequence, 3 times longer than almost all of the other Final Fantasy endings. I feel that Hironobu Sakaguchi, Yoshinori Kitase, and Hiroyuki Ito were not just leaving the 16-bit era of Final Fantasy with a bang, but paying proper tribute to their grandest work ever!