5) The Modern Classic - Tales of Symphonia (GC) - Although I'm a huge fan of modern and contemporary RPGs such as the Persona series or The World Ends With You, I have a special place in my heart for old-school. I think many of us do because that's what we cut our RPG teeth on. But there are aspects about old-school RPGs that were fine for the time, but are major inconveniences for modern gamers. This is where Tales of Symphonia comes in. It provides the perfect blend of old-school "mojo" with modern conveniences. I praised the game quite highly in my review precisely because of that. And I'm not going to lie, the Tales series has my favorite RPG battle system ever. To me, Tales of Symphonia is the definition of a modern classic. Other games such as Skies of Arcadia and Dragon Quest VIII could be considered modern classics as well, but I enjoyed Tales of Symphonia far more than I did those other two.
4) The Innovative Product - Phantasy Star Online (DC) - Online RPGs were a fast growing staple on the PC back in the early 2000s and games such as Diablo and EverQuest were the kings of online RPGing. However, consoles were not online machines back then. The Dreamcast was the first console to have online capabilities built in and Phantasy Star Online was the first online console RPG. Phantasy Star Online was my first (and last) experience with online RPGing, and I sunk 500+ hours of my life into it. Despite the fact that Phantasy Star Online was quite limited, it was digital crack and knowing how addicted I got to it, I swore off online gaming after that. Sure, there are much better examples of online console RPGs these days (i.e. Final Fantasy XI) and the Phantasy Star Online series itself has supposedly gone downhill, but the Dreamcast original holds a special place in my heart and to me is the innovative product that really set the tone for the current gaming generation, for which online play and downloadable content are the rule rather than the exception.
3) A Story for the Ages - Ever17: The Out of Infinity (PS2) - If you ask anyone why they play RPGs or graphic adventures, a common answer will be "the story." RPGs and graphic adventures often have deeper and more involved storylines than other genres of video games. And this generation introduced me to KID's Infinity series, which includes Never7, Ever17, Remember11, and the recently released 12Riven. The Infinity series is the absolute best visual novel series I've ever experienced with its complex storylines and intriguing, well-developed characters. My personal favorite of the series, and one of my personal favorite video games period, is Ever17. I was ecstatic when Hirameki (RIP) brought the PC port of this Playstation 2 masterpiece to US audiences. The story is still the most involving and emotionally charged story I've ever experienced in a video game and has even surpassed many great novels I've read. I could not stop playing it because I wanted to uncover every ending so I could unravel the layers of the plot. The beauty of the plot is that it's complex, deep, and philosophical without ever being obtuse. A storyline is only as good as its characters and this game has a superb cast. Tsugumi Komachi has to be the absolute best tragic heroine I've ever met in a video game. If you thought that Albedo in the Xenosaga games was an incredible character and a compelling case study, you have to meet Tsugumi. Trust me.
2) The Transcender of Fandoms - Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (Xbox) - Star Wars is something that transcends, well, everything. Everyone in the world knows and loves Star Wars. I cannot think of an entity with a more rabid fanbase. The Star Wars universe is a place everyone, child and adult alike, wants to visit and be a part of. Since video games allow us to visit and be a part of these, and other, realms it's no surprise that there have been a ridiculous amount of Star Wars video games over the years. These games have run the gamut from awesome to awful. However, the absolute best Star Wars video game ever created is easily Bioware's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Heck, that game is considered by many to be the best console RPG of the generation. And the reason it's so good is because, like Star Wars itself, it transcends RPG fandoms. Not only did fans of American-style RPGs take to it like fish to water, but die-hard fans of Japanese RPGs who would rather die than acknowledge American gaming loved it as well. Bioware hit the ball out of the park with Knights of the Old Republic and continue to woo RPG fans all over the globe with killer RPGs.
1) The Culmination of a Generation - Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 (PS2) - I've always been a huge fan of the Megami Tensei series and the Playstation 2 has seen the series become a hit in North America. Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne was an incredible game. The Digital Devil Saga duo of games provided a unique and complex storyline that made jaded JRPG fans stand up and take notice. Although Devil Summoner: Raidou Kuzunoha vs. The Soulless Army was a somewhat weak entry, it still had atmosphere and a sense of period that other RPGs didn't have. But my personal favorite has to be Persona 3. Persona has always been my favorite sub-series under the Megami Tensei umbrella and Persona 3 is the best. It really pushed the series in a fresh direction, emphasized the school aspects of Persona, and its dungeon crawling and life/school-sim elements went together like chocolate and peanut butter. The storyline and characters had emotional impact and the localization was the best I've ever seen. The game is unabashedly Japanese, yet the localization stayed true to it and never tried to Americanize anything. It made use of Japanese terms like "senpai" likely because with the popularity of high school anime on US television, gaming fans are more aware of Japanese culture. It's amazing that a game with such strong Japanese flavor could become a hit in North America and a top seller for Atlus.
To me, Persona 3 is the culmination of a generation. It's an innovative product for its blend of RPG and life sim. It's a modern classic that exemplifies what JRPGs are capable of and has received major acclaim from both critics and fans. It provides an emotionally charged storyline for the ages with deep and well-developed characters (Junpei is awesome). It transcends culture because although it's a game strongly rooted in Japanese culture, gamers all over the world love it and consider it one of the most involving JRPGs they've ever played. Not only does Persona 3 combine the best of everything in my top picks, but it also has that extra special secret ingredient. I have zero reason not to select Persona 3 as my top RPG for the generation.