When I was seeking out not-released-in-North-America RPGs in the early 2000s, SD3 emerged as my favorite of the bunch, and eventually one of my overall favorite RPGs. The sprites, environments, and effects are among the prettiest on the Super Famicom, and the colorful Mana aesthetic has never looked better. Choosing a party of three characters out of six, and each character ending up in one of four classes offers impressive replayability and affects the story in interesting ways (Hawk-Kevin-Carlie is the way to go, guys). I've beaten SD3 at least eight times experimenting with different party combinations (which doesn't feel like a chore, with SD3's fun action-based combat), and each time was a treat. Highly recommended.
Final Fantasy Tactics was a revelation to teenaged me, and represented a lot of "firsts" in my RPG resumé. FFT was my first strategy RPG, my first game with generic characters that I could develop myself, and my first game that had me reading lore entries via in-game menus to understand its loaded narrative. The fascinating relationship between the manipulative Delita and the freedom-fighting Ramza, the awesome combat and battlefields, and the tremendous class system have stuck with me for years. FF Tactics was my gateway drug into Disgaea, Fire Emblem, and other strategy RPGs, and I still regard it as the sub-genre's gold standard.
Categorizing RPGs can be a tricky business. What does a game need to be an RPG? Progressive level systems? Multiple playable characters? Nonlinear exploration of the game-space? Customizable equipment or skills? Is Mega Man an RPG? Totally subjective question. I'm not sure if the modern Castlevania games are RPGs or not, but I adore almost all of them, and I'll call Symphony of the Night an RPG for this list. The first Castlevania of the new era is still the best of the lot. Symphony of the Night's castle is chock-full of clever appropriations of Castlevania series lore, which makes it all the more rewarding for series veterans. Alucard is one of the most fun-to-use player characters ever; the son of Dracula's wide arsenal of weapons and spells is employed to slay hundreds of monsters across a massive, gorgeous castle to explore, with some of the best music and atmosphere ever created for an action RPG. Recommended to any and all Castlevania fans (if you're a Castlevania fan and haven't played Symphony, what are you even doing?) and RPG fans alike.
Persona 3 was a hell of a game, and Persona 4 fixed what was broken about its predecessor. Opening up the Social Link system with greater availability for nearly every link; deepening character relationships with Social Links for your party members and adjusting the dating Social Links; featuring eight distinctly themed dungeons with important plot significance instead of a big, empty tower; adding a fast travel option in town; and most important of all, controlling your party members in battle and accessing their items in any menu. Whew. I loved Persona 3, and Persona 4 corrected most of my hangups about it, and on top of that brought together one of the most memorable casts in video game history. And the music! Persona 4's eclectic blend of pop, hip-hop, and electronica is stunning, and I still listen to parts of its soundtrack to this day. Yes, Persona 4 is accused of being too lighthearted in tone on occasion (surprising, since P4 is about bringing a serial killer to justice), but I dig balancing out the darker side of the game with goofy humor. Balancing out the darkness and light in a story makes the jokes funnier and the drama more impactful. Persona 4 isn't without its narrative issues, but I stand by its excellent writing and compelling gameplay. It's my second-favorite RPG of all time, after all.
Combining the Square team during its mid-90s creative peak with the great Yuji Horii's story ideas, Akira Toriyama's art, Hironobu Sakaguchi's team leadership, and music from Yasunori Mitsuda AND Nobuo Uematsu resulted in something truly special. Chrono Trigger is a tale about time travel that doesn't feel convoluted or bloated, with a plot that continually raises the story's stakes right up until you save the world from an ancient evil. Chrono Trigger's extremely streamlined gameplay — fast-moving battles, no cut-ins for fights, tight moveset for each character — keeps the grind to a minimum. With that smooth active-time combat, really beautifully designed environments and characters, and an incredible amount of optional content within its linear story path, Chrono Trigger has hardly any wasted space. Even 20 years later, Chrono Trigger holds up as a triumph in RPG design, and it's my favorite game, RPG or otherwise, ever made.
Final Fantasy VI, Dragon Quest V, Skies of Arcadia, Diablo II