The PlayStation 1 was a bastion for RPGs, many of which have still yet to be surpassed to this day. Ranking them is nigh impossible, but the best PS1 RPGs can be put into tiers of quality with the Top 3 standing out on their own.
Here are the best RPGs for the Playstation 1. Unlike many lists, there are no restrictions on entries per franchise (so expect to see multiple entries from Final Fantasy). To qualify as an RPG there needs to be significant character attribute progression, customization or both, a intricate story and not just "RPG elements." Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is missing from this list for that very reason. My own personal objections were mostly confirmed by a very unscientific poll. It's not a highly specific definition and today, almost every game has elements of an RPG, but for the original PlayStation, an RPG was much more easily definable and the crossover genres hadn't really begun. So for this list, the traditional RPG from the fifth generation is what will be considered.
Best PS1 RPGs Honorable Mentions
Parasite Eve was a terrific hybrid of survival horror and RPG. While not a traditional, turn-based RPG, Parasite Eve didn't have real-time encounters either. The combat is pausable and uses an Active Time Bar to designate the next attack, However, while the Active Time Bar fills, the player can still move around the field defensively, dodging enemy attacks. This really was like an RPG Resident Evil. It also featured a female protagonist, one to rival Lara Croft of the era, but sadly the series didn't continue after two sequels (one on PS1, the other on the PSP). It was relatively short, and the gameplay, while good, was also repetitive.
Legend of Legaia
Legend of Legaia's combat interface was by far the most interesting thing it had going for it. Attack damage is based on the usual traits; equipment, strength, speed, etc. But initiating the attacks are done much more tactically, choosing where to attack an opponent based on the aforementioned traits. It's essentially a button combo, almost as you'd see in a rhythm game, that is the biggest determinate of success. The bigger and more complicated the combo, the more damage that would be dealt. This was a big differentiator in the time of turn-based combat and helped set Legend of Legaia apart.
Legend of Dragoon
There's no denying that Legend of Dragoon was influenced heavily by Final Fantasy, some may even say it was more than "influenced." But so what, Final Fantasy was at the top of its game, so mimicking it is a testament to Legend of Dragoon's quality. Similar to Legend of Legaia, Legend of Dragoon featured timed button presses that helped to break up the monotony of the turn-based combat and keep players engaged. Unfortunately, one of the reasons for this is that the combat wouldn't be nearly as engaging without it, so in that respect it is a bit of a gimmick. However, the story is grand, the graphics, particularly during battle, are nice (albeit a bit bland) and for all intents and purposes it feels like you are playing a Final Fantasy, in a good way.
Alundra is an action RPG, that at first glance has some Zelda in it. And while there is definitely some Zelda influence, as the action is viewed in a similar, top-down perspective, Alundra is more about solving puzzles than it is about traversing the landscape and exploring dungeons. The puzzles in Alundra are remarkably difficult, especially by today's standards, yet the game was received incredibly well by critics. The action and controls are not great by today's standards, and while the sprite-based art style is nice is nice, it doesn't stand out. It comes down to the mature, dark plot about nightmares with the proverbial good and evil and the back-breaking puzzles, that makes Alundra stand out as one of the best PS1 RPGs.
With an original setting (for video games at least) in Norse mythology, Valkyrie Profile also has an original combat system. Alternating turns, as the entire party shares one turn and able to attack, defend as well as other statuses, simultaneously. Enemies, however are given their own turn and do not combine attacks with one another. To streamline the one turn, team-based attacks, each character is assigned one of four buttons. It's an intuitive system that really works to differentiate Valkyrie Profile from other PS1 RPGs and as the system grows throughout the playthrough, it becomes deeper and deeper. The game is good at slowly building up the system as you progress, never feeling overwhelming, and combined with the wonderful story, Valkyrie Profile gives weight to progression.
Grandia is another PS1 RPG that moves away from the traditional turn-based style of so many others. Grandia's battles play out on a 3D battlefield where free movement in between choosing your actions is possible. Grandia is still "turn-based" when deciding your action, but because your character positioning is what determines not only your attacking success and choices, but also of the enemies, there is more strategy in the free movement. Despite existing on a three-dimensional battlefield, Grandia's graphics are sprite-based, played from an isometric-like perspective (not quite top-down). Another way in which Grandia was ahead of its time was that there were several characters that have voice actors, a rarity for not only PS1 RPGs, but the PS1 in general.
Dragon Warrior VII
Dragon Warrior VII is definitely not the most aesthetically pleasing of the list, even despite the sprite-based graphics. Dragon Warrior is known for its pedigree in a similar vein as the Final Fantasy series, and like the Final Fantasy, the games are similar in gameplay style. Dragon Warrior VII has the gameplay that defines the stereotypical JRPG. It has turn-based, simple battles, massive exploration and an epic story where an unlikely hero must save the world. It sounds generic, but it is all done so well, and has been mimicked so well, it's important to remember why.
Great PS1 RPGs
The wild west setting alone makes Wild Arms stand out among PS1 RPGs, but that's not all it has going for it. Simplifying the story by having only three main protagonists allows each to shine and be fully developed, giving the story an enhanced personal importance. The battle system of Wild Arms is also worthy of praise; traditional turn-based mechanics combined with very specific character abilities and the RES statistic, which is essentially speed. The wild west setting isn't just that, it combines elements of the medieval and fantasy, with one character's primary weapon as swords with another's, magic. Wild Arms was overshadowed at the time by Final Fantasy VII, but deserves a spot of its own.
Chrono Trigger is widely as regarded the best RPG of all-time, Chrono Cross bears half the name and the same studio, but lacks quite a bit of the charm and story telling of its spiritual predecessor. Despite this, Chrono Cross is a marvelous game. The combat is varied, the graphics are vibrant and colorful in addition to terrific 3D models there is an additional huge world to explore. The negatives of Chrono Cross only stem from comparisons to Chrono Trigger, most notably the story. If there is one aspect of Chrono Cross that isn't top tier, it's the story. Unfortunately story is a huge aspect of role-playing games, especially when you're associated with the aforementioned Chrono Trigger, but Chrono Cross is still one of the PS1 RPGs.
Breath of Fire IV
Breath of Fire IV is beautiful, and probably always will be due to its animated sprites, however the graphics mix these with full 3D models, which do not hold up at all (although they appear only infrequently in the game). It's a shame really, because Breath of Fire VI would easily be the best looking game on the list, and still might very well be. Another aspect of the graphics that make them original were the 3D backgrounds, which was counter to most games of the time using pre-rendered graphics with 3D models on top of them. It's this process that helps the beautiful sprites stand out even more. Of course the graphics aren't the only thing that makes the game great; the Master System allows players to customize each character by having them apprentice under different masters found throughout the world. With six main characters this creates a great sense of customization and combined with the expansive story, Breath of Fire IV is one of the best examples of PS1 RPGs, today.
Top Tier PS1 RPGs
Star Ocean: The Second Story
With two primary characters to choose from, and several different endings, Star Ocean: The Second Story has a wealth of replay value. And fortunately, The Second Story is such a sensational game that it warrants multiple playthroughs. Unlike many RPGs on this list, the battles are played in real-time, are very action-oriented and only one character is controlled. There are no limits to character movement during battles, and the other party members are controlled by AI. What really distinguishes The Second Story from its contemporaries is its story. RPGs are known for there ability to weave story telling and gameplay and Star Ocean is one of the most effective. It's relatively mature even if the character's themselves are not and is a true sci-fi setting, with fewer fantasy elements than most. With the combat and story, Star Ocean: The Second Story is certainly the best in the series and one of the best RPGs on the PS1.
Final Fantasy VIII
The flaws of Final Fantasy VIII are exaggerated, and its features are underrated.
From the review:
Final Fantasy VIII is one of the best looking, best sounding and accessible RPGs on the PlayStation. Say what you will about the Junction System, its advantages far outweigh its flaws, adding a very exact way to customize character attributes, even from early on in the game.
Final Fantasy VIII is a top tier RPG on a console known for its RPG library. While many do not consider it better than the two Final Fantasy games that bookend it, it should be considered at the same level.
Final Fantasy IX
Final Fantasy IX was a return to the series roots after several entries moved closer to science-fiction themes. Fans were more than delighted by the change as FFIX took a decidedly light-hearted tone, characters with a lot of class-specific specialties and a completely fantastical plot complete with royalty bloodlines and magic. Final Fantasy IX definitely intends to exploit nostalgia which is both a blessing and a curse. It's just such a contrast when compared to the previous two Final Fantasys on the PS1 that it was the perfect example of right time, right place as opposed to pushing another sc-fi setting. Now it is a great and beloved game in its own right for reasons mentioned above, it's just not one of the three best PS1 RPGs.
Suikoden II has developed it's reputation over time and is remembered more fondly than most. Suikoden II sets itself apart due to its relatively isolated story. And besides focusing on the character development (which does still exist and is naturally fleshed out, especially between the main character and his friend Jowy,) it is the overarching ancient conflict plagued by politics and the exciting and sometimes tragic twists and turns. The graphics of Suikoden II are not impressive by any means (nor were they for any PS1 game at the time) and gameplay, while solid, wasn't anything original, it is truly the remarkable setting and story that makes Suikoden II a terrific game.
Final Fantasy Tactics
While still an RPG, Final Fantasy Tactics is different in terms of gameplay much more so than other games on this list. Battles take place on a three-dimensional grid, with each space representing distance between movement and attack range which both are determined by character attributes and job class. These battles are turn-based but because of the grid, arranging attack position is much more tactical, naturally. Final Fantasy Tactics is fairly difficult, but it doesn't detract from the world building of Ivalice (later seen in Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy XII) and the twists and turns of its political intrigue.
The Top 3 PS1 RPGs
Maturity is used to describe a game's plot quite a bit, even so in many of the entries on this list. Maturity can mean many things, but in the case of Xenogears, maturity is tackling topics such as philosophy, religion and psychology all within a science-fiction setting. Xenogears posed such deep questions that it sometimes overshadowed the rest of the game. Luckily excellent combat, which differed in style and mechanics whether fighting on foot or in a mech, more than provided a reason not to get lost in existential thought. The ending can be downright devastating but it can be interpreted in different ways depending upon your personal beliefs. It can be preachy, or it can be thought-provoking, but either way it plays on your convictions and that was and still is extremely rare for a video game.
Final Fantasy VII
Because of so much acclaim, Final Fantasy VII has seen its fair share of "overrated" talk. The fact that it was an introduction for so many gamers, not just to the series but to the PlayStation as well, is a testament to its quality. One of the only games in the series to have numerous spin-off properties expanding upon its universe, and a full-fledged remake, Final Fantasy VII is still popular today. The first 3D Final Fantasy, even if simple by today's standards (especially the non-battle sequences) was most of all, just so cool. Cloud was cool, Sephiroth was cool and the setting was cool. The quality of its predecessor and the games to follow almost discredit the influence, systems and the developed, riveting story featured in Final Fantasy VII.
Vagrant Story was released late on the console, and it shows. Everything about it looks and feels next gen. It has some of the best graphics and gameplay mechanics of the era and shows Squaresoft when they were truly at the height of their powers. Differentiating itself again from many other RPGs of the time, Vagrant Story dispenses with much of melodramatics and focuses on rather straightforward and conventional, yet poignant story elements. Manipulation through grief plays a large role in the story. It's this grief and guilt that shapes Ashley's motivation and is one of the most interesting twists in the game.Vagrant Story weaves it's story, music and gameplay together wonderfully. Several flaws with infrequent save points and the frustrating Risk Meter bring down the experience, but not enough to prevent Vagrant Story from being one of if not the best PlayStation RPGs.