Welcome to day two of our Defending Champions feature. The 2000s was an interesting time of transition from more traditional RPGs to the often experimental, and everything in between. Be sure to check back tomorrow to see the results for 2010-2019!
Winner: Final Fantasy IX
by Alana Hagues
This is the first Final Fantasy game I ever played, and my, what a way to start. Following the two previous PSX entries in the series, Final Fantasy IX is a return to tradition, set in a medieval fantasy steampunk world. Even as a first-timer, I was utterly charmed by the diverse characters and beautiful world, and I found myself enthralled by all of the nods to Final Fantasy history. The skill and magic systems are much simpler than the previous two games, with characters locked into specific jobs and abilities learnt from equipment.
Most importantly, I think that FFIX has one of the best stories in the series. It feels like a warm, nostalgic hug from beginning to end, with a few tears shed along the way. The eight main characters each have their own struggles as they try to find their purpose in life and their role in the world. Zidane struggling to come to terms with his birth and Vivi being scared of his limited lifespan are scenes that have stuck with me for life.
And hey, if series creator Hironobu Sakaguchi says this is his favourite Final Fantasy, then that has to mean it’s special.
Runner-Up: Skies of Arcadia
by Alana Hagues
Skies of Arcadia never fails to bring a smile to my face throughout the entire 40-hour journey. Never has the sense of adventure been more perfectly captured than in this game: Arcadia is truly one of the genre’s best world maps, with so much to discover and explore. You get your own airship, and the excitement of gathering up a crew and building your own secret base is unmatched. The game takes every RPG trope and perfects it, with a heartwarming, swashbuckling adventure about defeating empires and overcoming adversity to boot. It’s a crying shame Skies of Arcadia is stuck on older consoles, so you’ll just have to take my word for it when I say this game is simply wonderful. [Editor’s Note: Be sure to also read Alana’s “Beyond the Sunset” article on Skies of Arcadia‘s refreshing optimism.]
- Winner: Final Fantasy IX (35%)
- Runner-Up: Diablo II (10%)
Winner: Final Fantasy X
by Isaac Parsons
Final Fantasy X came out shortly after the love letter that is Final Fantasy IX, and it took the series in a whole new direction. Players immediately find themselves in a setting unique not just to Final Fantasy but video games in general: Spira, a beautifully realized tropical archipelago inspired by Southeast Asia. The people of Spira have rejected the use of technology and found meaning in the religious sect of Yevon. In this setting, a very personal tale is told as protagonists Tidus and Yuna undertake a sacred pilgrimage to destroy the monstrous Sin.
FFX is also the first Final Fantasy since FFIII to eschew ATB and aim for something purely turn-based. However, it’s not just back to basics. FFX‘s conditional turn-based battles (CTB) allow an impressive amount of control over turn order. Characters can also be switched in and out of the battle party on the fly, giving the player access to their full range of abilities at all times. The sphere grid, a huge shared skill tree, allows more freedom in building how the characters function in battle.
Runner-Up: Shadow Hearts
by Isaac Parsons
If you’re searching for a perfect blend of horror and RPG, then look no further than 2001’s Shadow Hearts. Its predecessor, Koudelka, is an impressive horror story with frustratingly obtuse RPG mechanics, and its successors take a step back from the horror elements. The original Shadow Hearts manages to strike the right balance; it lives up to the horror genre through and through with eerie and terrifying vignettes while serving as a period piece that takes the player on a grand and poignant adventure through Asia and Europe. Despite doing all that, the game still manages to innovate in the RPG space with the judgement ring battle system.
- Winner: Final Fantasy X (55%)
- Runner-Up: Golden Sun (19%)
Winner: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
by Niki Fakhoori
What do you feel when you look out at the open sea? Does its deep emptiness elicit feelings of loneliness and looming mystery? One little boy and his boat against the vast ocean can seem overwhelming, but the ocean’s openness can also instill a sense of adventure and a thirst for exploration. Across the sea, you will find a colorful cast of characters whose fates become intertwined in a fight against an ancient evil — it may just be a boy and his boat, but you’re never truly alone.
A coming-of-age story combined with the weight of self-sacrifice for the greater good of the future. A one-of-a-kind art style with distinct and memorable character designs. Rewarding overworld exploration and a multitude of engaging puzzles — all facets of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker are as timeless as the sea itself.
Runner-Up: Xenosaga Episode I
by Tyler Trosper
Before Monolith Soft was known for the Xenoblade Chronicles series, Xenosaga was the company’s fledgling IP. It’s hard not to compare Xenosaga Episode I to its classic PS1 predecessor with a team of former Xenogears staff at the helm. However, Xenosaga stands on its own with an intriguing sci-fi opera that sets the building blocks for the rest of the series.
Four thousand years into the future, humanity is plagued by the Gnosis, an alien threat that exists between our dimension and another. In order to combat them, Shion Uzuki builds an android named KOS-MOS to save the universe. However, their battle is only one part of a galaxy-wide web full of mystery, philosophical ponderings, and giant robots.
- Winner: Kingdom Hearts (17%)
- Runner-Up: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (13%)
Winner: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne
by Liz Maas
There is a reason Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne’s remaster announcement earlier this summer was met with such fervent fanfare. The PlayStation 2 original is often proclaimed as being the best of the Shin Megami Tensei series and one of the console’s best RPGs overall. What better setting than finding yourself in post-apocalyptic Tokyo, negotiating with demons of all varieties? There’s something to be said for the subtle way Nocturne tells its story and lets you focus on fighting your way through Tokyo, getting lost in the labyrinths, running from Dante, and enjoying its incredible soundtrack. Though Nocturne’s battle system returned in other SMT games and spinoffs like Digital Devil Saga, we have yet to see a title that comes close to rivaling Nocturne itself—but if you’re like me, you’re likely hoping that next year’s Shin Megami Tensei V will be a strong contender.
Runner-Up: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
by Jonathan Logan
Nowadays, we are spoiled for Star Wars, but back in 2003, things were a little different. The prequels somewhat underwhelmed everyone, and there was a craving for some old-school, galaxy-spanning adventures! Thankfully, BioWare heard the call and created one of the most well-regarded and influential RPGs ever: Knights of the Old Republic.
Offering an incredibly detailed morality system that has a real impact on the story, KotOR allows you to choose between the light and dark sides of the Force, developing powers to heal the galaxy or crush it under your heel. The game captures the feeling of the original Star Wars like nothing has before (or arguably, since). With excellent gameplay, an in-depth combat system, and one of the most incredible twists in gaming, KotO is absolutely worth a playthrough today!
- Winner: Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne (20%)
- Runner-Up: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (19%)
Winner: Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
by Nilson Carroll
Dragon Quest VIII successfully updated the tried and true classic DQ formula for a new millennium, offering a fresh, fully 3D Dragon Quest adventure that did surprisingly well in the US. A tasty Final Fantasy XII demo disc only sweetened the deal, but DQVIII would have made its mark on its own merits easily. It has become probably the most recognizable DQ in the West (with its silent protagonist earning a spot in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate) and convinced a whole new generation of players of the series’ staying power.
DQVIII is a heavy package. Seeing Akira Toriyama’s designs in glorious 3D for the first time was mind-blowing, a dream that had finally come true. I won’t say anything about Sugiyama’s music, but Yuji Horii and the Level-5 staff created something magical, the perfect PS2 fairytale. It is simpler than its peers (Xenosaga, Shin Megami Tensei, NIS games) but no less serious or difficult. Like all DQ titles, it’s about removing a poison from the land, restoring a bit of peace, and undoing a powerful curse inflicting us all.
Runner-Up: Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door
by Isaac Parsons
Mario is one of the biggest icons in gaming, but rarely does his popularity have anything to do with engaging storylines, character development arcs or skillfully written dialogue. Yet, within Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door comes some of the funniest and most heartfelt writing in the medium. It isn’t just the writing that makes The Thousand Year Door special; a great cast of partners with unique abilities, both in and out of battle, joins you along the way, and the badge system allows the player to create a variety of playstyles for Mario himself. These details make the action command battles truly shine.
- Winner: Dragon Quest VIII (20%)
- Runner-Up: World of Warcraft (12%)
Winner: Tales of the Abyss
by Alana Hagues
I have a hard time summarising just how much I love Tales of the Abyss, but as a big fan of the series, no other entry has had quite the same impact. It pushes the series forward not only by introducing freerunning to combat, but also by building up an intriguing world with a huge amount of lore. The story weaves ethics, politics, warfare and religion in a way that hooks you right from the start, and it introduced me to six main characters who I still cherish.
It’s these characters that make the game so compelling to me. All of them are morally grey or involved in a scandalous plot, but each of them eventually accepts their past and their mistakes. Specifically, Luke fon Fabre’s growth from a snotty noble to a vulnerable-yet-courageous person is incredible. It’s one of the best character arcs in any JRPG. For that reason alone, Tales of the Abyss is a real high in this long-running series, and the genre as a whole.
Runner-Up: Ys: The Oath in Felghana
by Michael Sollosi
The travelogue of Adol Christin spans decades, both in the context of the release schedule of Nihon Falcom’s legendary action RPG series and the within wonderful world of Ys. Each new Ys title tells the tale of one of Adol’s adventures, and The Oath in Felghana is one of the greatest. A remake of the less-beloved Wanderers from Ys, The Oath in Felghana sees Adol and his steadfast companion Dogi explore ancient ruins and thwart a plot to revive an ancient superweapon in this action-packed RPG with memorable characters and a killer soundtrack. Ys do what Zeldon’t.
- Winner: Tales of the Abyss (23%)
- Runner-Up: Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance (21%)
Winner: Persona 3
by Peter Triezenberg
Persona 3 holds a special place among the series’ ranks. It was the game that introduced Social Links to the Persona sub-franchise, which spawned a zeitgeist of countless imitators. It also has some of the most cohesive theming of any RPG I’ve ever played. Persona 3 is fundamentally a game about death: each character struggles with their own mortality, and the game is littered with iconography to reinforce that struggle, from the coffins that line the streets at night to the gun-like Evokers the heroes turn on themselves to summon their Personas. “Memento mori,” the game intones—”remember, you will die.” Even the protagonist’s starting Persona, Orpheus, brings to mind the tragic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, a quest doomed to failure. Is the struggle even worthwhile when the end is certain?
Yet with the acceptance of death comes a newfound appreciation for life, and despite the grim overtones, Persona 3 is ultimately a profoundly hopeful game. The heroes are able to overcome their personal obstacles and move forward with newfound purpose. Persona 3 struck a chord with me in ways that few other games have, and I’ll forever cherish my journey through the halls of Tartarus with SEES.
Runner-Up: Final Fantasy XII
by Eva Padilla
Final Fantasy XII is a ramshackle glory. A child of distress, spitting on heritage and crash landing onto a new world. It’s a small miracle Final Fantasy XII was released at all, and as wonders never cease, it is a half-brilliant work of the most fiendish cobbling.
FFXII is more a successor to Vagrant Story than Final Fantasy X. From the beginning, the bright idealism of yesteryear is contrasted sharply with abject immiseration. The main party of class traitors and wide-eyed street rats stalk damp corridors, summoning dejected god-like beings in a battle for the reigns of an empire.
The atmosphere of Ivalice is nearly indescribable, and the football-influenced Active Dimension Battle system is a remarkable achievement in innovation. And that localization? It’s simply the greatest.
- Winner: Persona 3 (20%)
- Runner-Up: Final Fantasy XII (15%)
Winner: The World Ends With You
by Bob Richardson
I first played The World Ends With You when I came back from Japan after teaching abroad. My brother and I hadn’t seen each other over that entire time, and I wanted to find something that he, my then-fiancee, and I could all play together and bond over. I don’t think I could have chosen a better title, as TWEWY gave all of us something to think about, discuss, and slam on. We all had different perspectives on the characters, ideas as to what was going on in the story, agreement regarding how cool the idea of noise was in our everyday lives, and approaches to battle.
Each poppy song gives every occasion and location a simultaneously upbeat and heartfelt vibe. From beginning to end, the story maintains the player’s focus and pulls them into a modern setting with a philosophical twist. The abstract ideas are communicated through relatable characters who all have something to fight for. Even the combat system, which admittedly has a steep learning curve, keeps the entire adventure frenetic and engaging. Keep in mind that 2007 was a time when everyone questioned Square Enix’s ability to make incredible games, but with the release of TWEWY, this worry was no more.
Runner-Up: Mass Effect
by Nathan Lee
For me, Mass Effect was the gateway between my days as an FPS player and my current love of RPGs. The original Mass Effect introduced me to a vibrant Milky Way galaxy full of cool-looking aliens and awesome planets. While the shooting mechanics are downright archaic these days, it’s still the most RPG-like of the Mass Effect trilogy, complete with weapon mods, different armour to equip, and skill point allocation. However, the things that make Mass Effect stand out are its story and characters. Mass Effect’s story hooked me right from the opening minutes and kept me playing all the way through to the end. Even when I replayed the trilogy a couple of years ago, I never got bored experiencing the first game’s amazing story again. It’s the perfect launching point for the trilogy, and it’s an integral part of what makes the Mass Effect series tick.
- Winner: Mass Effect (31%)
- Runner-Up: Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core (18%)
Winner: Persona 4
by Michael Sollosi
Persona 4 has a sense of time and place unlike any other RPG. From April 2011 to March 2012, an exchange student lives with his uncle and cousin in the rural Japanese town of Inaba, where he attends school, makes new friends, and brings a serial killer to justice by summoning mythical beings with supernatural powers (!?).
These disparate elements blend beautifully into one of the best RPGs of the 2000s. By hanging out in Inaba, spending time with friends, and going to class, the protagonist connects with the people around him, improving his Persona-summoning powers and taking steps to prevent the killer’s next murder attempt. Persona 4 offers both a tourist fantasy of life in a small Japanese town and a power fantasy of summoning gods and demons to defeat twisted shadow monsters. It’s a marriage of story choice and combat customization that works shockingly well.
Persona 4 further elevated the series’ worldwide popularity following 2006’s Persona 3, and its metaphors of the light of truth breaking through the fog of ignorance and confronting one’s inner demons by literally fighting demons resonated deeply with fans. Over a decade later, millions fondly remember their year abroad in Inaba.
Runner-Up: Tales of Vesperia
by Alana Hagues
Tales of Vesperia is my summer break RPG. I remember beating it in two weeks before going back to school, and I loved every second of it. It’s easily one of the prettiest games in the series with its new (at the time) cel-shaded art style. Gameplay is tighter than the previous entries with more balanced freerunning and a deceptively simple skill system. Vesperia also brought us my favourite cast in RPG history. Yuri, Estelle, and friends never fail to make me laugh or cry. The 2019 Definitive Edition only confirms that Vesperia is one of the series’ best, and will be hard to beat.
- Winner: Persona 4 (58%)
- Runner-Up: Fallout 3 (14%)
Winner: Dragon Age: Origins
by Audra Bowling
I played Dragon Age: Origins during a very chaotic time in my life. I was losing a job I had worked at for years, and my closest friend was preparing for an event that would see us separated for a long time. No matter how I tried to look at things from different perspectives, I felt as if the rug had been swept out from under me. To alleviate some of that stress, and to create some more memories together before our parting, my friend and I decided to try playing the Dragon Age series together. Naturally we went with Dragon Age: Origins first.
I still remember the debate over which character to play as; we ultimately chose a female Rogue City Elf. I can easily recall how much time we spent pouring over the many branching story decisions found in the game. I was in awe over the incredibly detailed world of Thedas, and I grew to love many of the characters for their realistic and even flawed viewpoints. Playing the game and discussing it with my friend became a cherished memory. With Dragon Age: Origins, BioWare created a truly detailed, moving, and choice-heavy fantasy epic.
Runner-Up: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors
by Niki Fakhoori
In this point-and-click visual novel/puzzle game hybrid, players are thrust into a world of fear, mystery, and deception. Filled to the brim with conspiracy theory-esque plot points grounded in real-world phenomena, 999’s unshakable atmosphere grips players at every moment. And every little thing matters—far beyond just what the characters say. I still have my one-inch binder filled with notes I furiously scribbled while playing, using each and every clue to piece together the game’s shocking secrets. 999 is a haunting, frantic race to escape with your life intact, and it’s one of the greatest, most unique visual novels out there.
- Winner: Dragon Age: Origins (25%)
- Runner-Up: Dragon Quest IX (15%)
That’s a wrap for part two! See final part of this list below, covering 2010–2019!