GIA staff favorites for 2000

   2000 was packed with an unprecedented slew of RPG, adventure, and rhythm games, but which were worth playing? In our annual feature, we rounded up current and recently-departed GIA agents to see which of last year's games they enjoyed the most.

   When the dust finally settled in the bloodied halls of the GIA's geosynchronous satellite, Final Fantasy IX had narrowly emerged as the favorite, appearing on six agents' lists and five times in the top slot. Vagrant Story was a close runner-up, receiving four first-place nods. Chrono Cross, Skies of Arcadia, The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Harvest Moon: Back to Nature, Legend of Mana, and the venerable Samba de Amigo also received mentions from several staffers.

   The following choices are not meant to represent the site as a whole or be taken as all-encompassing "awards," but give an idea of what each staffer most enjoyed over the past year.

Tamzen Marie Baker

  1. Final Fantasy IX
    • Fans clamoured for a return to the fantasy realm, and we certainly got it. I adored most of the characters, and the beautiful and diverse locations. The story may have had some very classic RPG elements in it, but it was still masterfully executed, and kept me playing 'til the very end. I just can't name a single thing in the game that I didn't love.
  2. Lunar 2
    • Even though it was a remake, this game's characters and story still won me over - go read my review if you need more reasons why.
  3. Chrono Cross
    • The characters were diverse, but none all that well-developed. The music and graphics were amazing...however, the story was too convoluted for me at points, and so it didn't knock L2 or FFIX out of their slots.

      Special mention: RPG Maker...while leaving much to be desired, I think it's really awesome that this "game" saw US release. I've been having a lot of fun with it...hmm, maybe I should give up the music thing and design games instead... *dreams*

Drew Cosner

  1. Chrono Cross
    • With Chrono Cross, the developers at Square stepped back and took a critical look at the RPG genre. Rather than clinging to outmoded concepts solely because "that's the way it's supposed to be," they then went ahead and threw all the unecessary baggage straight out the window, replacing these with alternatives that were not just workable but vastly superior. Most notably, gone are frivolous random encounters, the need to "level-up" your characters as a tactic to stretch out the game time, and battles requiring no strategy outside of "be at a high enough level and heal frequently."

      That's not to say the game dispenses with everything seen before; aspects that worked have been retained. The most notable example being the "New Game+" feature originally seen in Chrono Trigger, something that every RPG ought to include. The fact that this was the sequel to one of the finest (if not the finest) SNES RPGs ever made was just the icing on the cake.

      While I was admittedly one of those who scoffed at the idea of over 40 playable characters, Square handled things masterfully, giving each character a unique mode of speech, dress, and behavior. The storyline, too, was epic in proportions, dealing with everything from time travel to multiple dimensions to the very reality of fate; not many other RPGs are out there tackle such complex ideas.

      In short, Chrono Cross is the RPG of the future -- I'm surprised to have played such a game on the aging PSX. If this is where the genre is headed, you can count me in.

  2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
    • I can say with full confidence that nobody knows or does 3D as well as Nintendo. The Ocarina of Time felt exactly like you'd always imagined the Zelda universe would if you weren't looking down on it from a bird's eye view. And, as always, Miyamoto and his team came up with the most ingenious dungeons and puzzles ever seen in a game. You can imagine my reaction when I found that there would be a quasi-sequel within a matter of years.

      While some gamers were quick to point out the "overly quick turnaround time" (funny that they don't seem to mind the yearly Tomb Raider installment) between OoT and Majora's Mask, this sequel of sorts absolutely lives up to the Zelda name. The game takes a different direction from its predecessor, relying as much on platforming skills as on puzzle-solving ability, and does it with aplomb. Never does anything feel as though it was thrown in as an afterthought; everything comes together into one excellent package that Nintendo loyalists can be proud of.

      Chances are, if you have an N64, you've already picked this game up. If you're one of the people who's missed out on both Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, N64s are dirt cheap at this point: you really owe it to yourself to try them out.

  3. Harvest Moon: Back To Nature
    • This is the most inexplicably enjoyable game I have ever played. For all rights and purposes, farming should not be fun. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that living on a farm would suck. Yet here's Back to Nature, proving the old adage correct: anything can be fun as long as you make a game of it.

      Of course, that's sure as hell easier said than done. The Harvest Moon series has been a favorite of mine for a while, but there have always been strange quirks that ensured it remained a niche series at best. With Back to Nature, Natsume finally hit the nail right on the head. Everything that worked with the earlier iterations returns done even better, and features and options that should have been around from the outset have finally been added.

      Back to Nature packs in enough different modes of gameplay for several games (farming sim, fishing game, cooking game, RPG, dating game, and more), yet none of these seem to detract from one another. Rather, they all come together in one charming, bizarre, package that makes you feel a little weird in front of college roommates but urges you to keep playing since you can almost afford that cow you've had your eyes on.

      If you don't mind playing something a little off-the-wall, or better yet, relish the thought, Back to Nature won't disappoint.

Jeff Davis

  1. Skies of Arcadia
    • Skies of Arcadia is one of the great few to come as close to perfection as anything yet seen. Instead of confusing and overly complicated narratives, the game's approach is lighthearted, but told with some of the most engaging storytelling in any RPG. Though graphically stunning, its modus operandi lies in brilliantly designed locales and brims with a unique sense of immersion. The cast sports great dialogue and charm, while at the same time never approaches a childish joie de vivre that detracts from the overall storyline. It also helps that Skies of Arcadia has the best and most enjoyable overworld to explore, period. Skies of Arcadia will forever be emblazoned in my memory.
  2. Shenmue
    • Although Shenmue isn't the game most of us expected, Yu Suzuki proves he still has the magic touch. Its realism grew on me fast. Every nuance of a sprawling japanese town is captured to utter perfection, as the only thing more realistic would undoubtedly be to be there yourself. The story is well-done, the main characters are engaging, the graphics are superb, the environments are prodigious, the cinematic presentation is incredible and the soundtrack -- composed in part by 'the master,' Yuzo Koshiro -- is arguably the most sophisticated in a videogame. All this amounts to one of the most revolutionary titles ever released. The agonizing wait for Shenmue II begins...
  3. Grandia II
    • Whether you love or hate Grandia, you've gotta admit Grandia II is a great game. Its likeable storyline is complimented with an engaging cast, top-notch visuals, wondrous soundtrack and one of the most enjoyable battle engines around. Kudos to GameArts and Ubi Soft.

      It should be mentioned the competition for third place was a close one; consisting of two stellar RPGs, Lunar 2: EBC and Final Fantasy IX.

Fritz Fraundorf

  1. Final Fantasy IX
    • Forget the mediocrity of Skies of Arcadia and the neon-colored meanderings of Chrono Cross: Final Fantasy IX was far and away the best RPG of 2000. Perfectly paced, it flies through four discs of plot twists, colorful characters (art director Hideo Minaba deserves a gold medal), exciting mini-games, and diverse locales without ever slowing down or becoming repetitive. The numerous FF-series homages hidden throughout the game will knock you down, though Square EA should be beaten to death with a stale loaf of French bread for their shoddy translation of them. FF IX is not a return to the style of the earlier FFs; it's a collection of the best elements of every installment -- and it's easily my favorite RPG ever.
  2. Legend of Mana
    • Since I still haven't gotten around to play Vagrant Story yet, this gets my vote as the best action RPG of 2000. While it's actually rather light on the action -- the battle system essentially consists of mashing buttons -- it excels in many other areas: lovably whimsical characters, loads of replay value, and an outstanding soundtrack from the gaming world's finest composer, Yoko Shimomura. The Tomba-inspired quest system is a terrific way of balancing non-linear gameplay with several interweaving storylines.
  3. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment
    • What's this - an RPG without a cheesy fantasy story? I'm a sucker for modern settings, especially ones as clever and intriguing as Persona 2's, and the characters. Yes, there's a lot of random battles -- but they're fun! An all-around great RPG, and especially recommended for those sick of the standard Prozac-drenched "Let's go on an adventure!" stories. Props also go out in no particular order to RPG Maker, Vanguard Bandits, Majora's Mask, Wild Arms 2, and Xenogears. (Okay, so Xenogears was released in 1998, but I replayed it this year and enjoyed it significantly more than I did the first time -- and it's better than most of the games released this year.)

Brian Glick

  1. Final Fantasy IX
    • Simply put, a great RPG. Never too serious, heavy, or convoluted, Final Fantasy IX delivered an incredibly fun series installment that left a big smile on my face. Square's choice of a hero deserves high marks -- unlike Squall and Cloud, the resourceful and quick-witted Zidane didn't make me want to punch him in the gut. And as for all those game fans who labeled this game as the best RPG of all time, I leave you with this simplistic yet effective emoticon: ":-)".
  2. Harvest Moon: Back to Nature
    • My brother got this one for Christmas, and I popped it in shortly thereafter with the intention of mocking it -- Farming RPG, indeed! Two weeks later, I emerge with a lean, mean, money-making farm machine, full of loving animals, friendly neighbors, efficiently-arranged crops, and the super-deformed woman of my dreams. And I'm still not sure why I can't put it down -- the tasks are long and intensely repetitive, the rewards are brief and infrequent,'s farming, for cryin' out loud. If you've played The Sims, you'll recognize this inexplicable feeling.
  3. Chrono Cross
    • While I suspect Skies of Arcadia would have made this slot had I played it by now, Chrono Cross is certainly a game plenty deserving of praise. Chrono Trigger fans have been pleading (often pathetically) for a sequel for years, and Square delivered with a title matching, if not surpassing, the excellence of the original. I wonder if anyone truly saw the "good" ending without the assistance of a friend or a FAQ, though.

Chris Jones

  1. Vagrant Story
    • Hands down, the most interesting, innovative, exciting game of the year... which wouldn't mean that much, if it wasn't also completely engrossing and a blast to play. It's not perfect, but it comes pretty damn close: a deep story that doesn't boil down to "plucky teenager saves the world", characters and dialog that give real movies a run for their money, gameplay that manages to be at once deeper and faster than nearly any other RPG, a brilliant ambient soundtrack, art design that feels like what the Middle Ages should have been, and real-time cut scenes that make most FMV look static and dull by comparison. Matsuno rules my world.
  2. SaGa Frontier 2
    • Nope, that's not a typo. This game has its share of faults, but for me, every minor failing is more than balanced out by a corresponding strong point. Foremost on the list would have to be the eye-watering graphics - this is easily the best looking game on the PSX, and probably on any system, anywhere. Combine with subtle, charming music and you've got a game that pulled me in deeper than any other this year, and maybe ever. This kind of alternate reality fix is why I started playing RPGs in the first place.

      Beyond that you have a pretty enjoyable battle system (admittedly with a hefty learning curve) and an ambitious plot that didn't fill in nearly as many details as it needed to, but was noteworthy nonetheless. Trash SF2 if you must, but I was extremely satisfied with this iteration, and I'd love to see SF3 sometime soon.

  3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
    • I actually had more fun playing Dewprism, but MM's the better game. It took me a while to figure what made this more than just a rehash of Ocarina of Time, but there are actually two significant new additions here: a plot with some real heft to it, and iterative gameplay that drew me further in to the story at each loop. MM may be the only game that's made the end of the world feel like a really important event; characters react to their impending doom in believable, human ways, and that gave me real drive towards trying to solve their problems and save their world. The game's limited time frame added an extra level of difficulty to dungeons that already rival any found in the rest of the series, while the ability to see the same events over and over, and change them as needed, is great to play around with. I just hope the Game Cube Zelda is this innovative.

J.T. Kauffman

  1. Final Fantasy IX
    • While some saw this game as a disappointment, I do think that it is a great summation of all of the Final Fantasy games to date. Taking the best bits and pieces of the previous games may have turned off some gamers, but I saw it as pure bliss.
  2. Skies of Arcadia
    • Though lack of a certain monetary instrument prevented me from playing through the whole game, Skies was up there battling FF IX for my personal number one slot. The epic feel of the game was incredible in and of itself, and that is before you even begin to comment on the graphics and story of it...
  3. Vagrant Story
    • Easily the most impressive in terms of real-time graphics and direction, as well the incredible English translation, Vagrant Story only failed in terms of its overly complex weapons system. Of course, this is always something that they could tone down in a PS2 sequel (hint hint).

Andrew Kaufmann

  1. Final Fantasy IX
    • Great story, great characters, good music, and great game. It didn't just bring back the old-school graphics style, it brought back the old-school wonder at a vast world with a bright atmosphere; a world we could escape to and adventure in rather than be forced to trudge through.
  2. Skies of Arcadia
    • Clever stuff in this here game. Unique battle system and beautifully done 3-D graphics highlight this innovative game. Slow-starting but steadily-improving throughout.
  3. Vanguard Bandits
    • OK, part of the reason I'm including this is because it'll piss off AV. But in all honesty, it was pretty underrated. It was outdated graphically, but the enjoyable character interaction and plotline made up for it. One of the brightest spots of the game was being able to replay it and find out what was going on in other parts of the world as the main quest took place.

Nich Maragos

  1. Samba de Amigo
    • I bought a lot of games last year, and most of them were pretty good. But there was only one that I played at least four days out of every week, for six straight months. The coolest songs, the freshest gameplay, and the most spastic graphics of the year were all found in Samba de Amigo. True, many were forced to pass it up because of the prohibitive price tag or the razor-thin maraca production margins--but those lucky few who got themselves a copy of the game and at least one set of controllers got to experience a genuinely unique title. Undying thanks to Sega for being the first company to brave the untested music game waters--when the Bemani flood starts this February with Dance Dance Revolution, you'll have them to thank.
  2. Chrono Cross
    • In retrospect, yeah, there were some flaws. The story's pacing was off. It may have been confusing to those who hadn't played Chrono Trigger. And yes, there probably could have been a better way to assign Elements to a character. But in its favor, the game only had the best graphics on the PlayStation, the best battle system ever seen in an RPG, a haunting Celtic-tinged score, multiple endings, and lots of references to a classic game. The day I see this kind of aesthetic and gameplay put into a new setting or story is, for my money, the day I'll start believing in RPGs again.
  3. Megaman Legends 2
    • The most difficult choice on this list. There were a lot of great games this year, and while I think the above two stood out from the rest, that still leaves about eight or nine titles vying for third place--and they're all weighted about equally. So Megaman Legends 2 gets the nod, for marrying RPG elements and that classic Megaman feeling so successfully with lots of room left over for nice anime-inspired visuals and a staggering amount of voiceovers. Apologies to Majora, Tron Bonne, Final Fantasy IX, MGS GBC, Persona 2, Skies of Arcadia, Grandia 2, and Space Channel 5.

Zak McClendon

  1. Vagrant Story
    • When Vagrant Story was first unveiled the press quickly labeled it a "medieval Metal Gear Solid." Though the actual game proved the comparisons were superficial as best, it does have one important thing in common with that title: it's an almost perfect game. The story was deep and compelling, executed with subtly and intelligence, and complimented by the best translation ever seen, from Square or any other company. The art and design was stylish and distinctive, and the graphics themselves accomplished things that simply shouldn't be possible on the aging PlayStation. Most importantly, all of this was tied up with gameplay system that managed to equally reward hard thinking and quick fingers. The incredibly flexible item customization may have been clunky at times, but it allowed for a level of strategy unheard of in an action RPG. In a year filled with an unprecedented number of high-quality games, I still don't have any hesitation in picking Vagrant Story as my favorite title of 2000.
  2. Samba de Amigo
    • It's a testament to the sheer quality of Sonic Team's creation that I can easily say I don't regret a single penny of the hefty $120 price tag for Samba and a set of maracas. From the infectiously catchy music to the sharp and frenzied graphics, Samba caught a hold of me like no other game this year. And, after my latest RPG obsession dies down, Samba is exactly the sort of game I know I'll return to again and again in the years to come. The real genius of Samba, though, is that there is absolutely no difference between playing the game and actually doing the activity it simulates. Though I never really knew I had a deep-seated urge to shake it like a crazed monkey, I'll always have a special little bit of floor space reserved for those maracas.
  3. Chrono Cross
    • I played the heck out of the import of Chrono Cross earlier this year and, when the domestic version finally arrived, I fell in love all over again. The graphics and soundtrack were among the best the PlayStation had ever seen, both technically and aesthetically. But what really had me hooked for the 100+ hours I spent on Chrono Cross this year was the most balanced, flexible, and downright enjoyable battle system Square has ever devised for a traditional RPG. When a game that does away with random battles and needless leveling up still has you seeking out more monsters to fight, you know you've found something special. The fact that all this came as a direct sequel to one of my favorite games of all time was just icing on the cake. And while the game suffered a bit from it's scattershot approach to plot and character development, it still presented a rich, lively world with a deep history and a strong sense of style.

Ed McGlothlin

  1. Vagrant Story
    • This was an incredibly tough year to only choose three games from, but Vagrant Story stands as that rare game which innovates wildly yet is perfectly polished. The stylish and literate nature of the game was combined with fantastic graphics, great art design, the best localization job ever seen, and unbelievably deep gameplay. The only problem was that it could be difficult to get into - past that, it was epic and flawless.
  2. Final Fantasy IX
    • Final Fantasy IX brought charm back to the series and dealt with life and death (through the Black Mages) in a way more touching and moving than any other RPG I've ever played. Instead being a constant and irritating problem for the hero, self-doubt was underplayed beautifully in the form of Vivi's coming to grips with the purpose of his life. I wasn't prepared to like the game this much, but FFIX is the best RPG developer in the business in top form.
  3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
    • Majora's Mask, though a side story, was definitely a worthy Zelda game - as much a compliment as can really be offered. It boasted a new gameplay system, a darker edge than previous installments in the series, and Nintendo's trademark spot-on control, all without much involvement from Miyamoto himself. Sometimes I wonder why we even bother having other action RPGs.

      Ogre Battle 64 gets an extremely strong honorable mention, as do Dragon Warrior I & II and Pokemon Gold/Silver for the GBC. Now for 2001 and some brand new consoles!

Jeremy Steimel

  1. Chrono Cross
    • A lot of games in 2000 had some impressive standout features. Likewise, a lot of games in 2000 lacked massively standout features, but presented an extremely solid package. Then there's Chrono Cross, a game which, to me, managed to merge extremely strong individual characteristics into one package that was so solid, it easily takes my vote for best game of the year.
  2. Final Fantasy IX
    • I'm admittingly behind on my Dreamcast gaming, and I have a feeling that the #2 seat would have been very contestable if I was a bit more caught up. None the less, Final Fantasy IX's mostly-interesting characters, beautiful graphics, enjoyable gameplay, and well-paced plot left it second to only Chrono Cross in the games I played this year.
  3. Legend of Mana
    • If there was one genre that I felt was done no justice in 2000, it would definitely be Adventure-RPGs. Legend of Mana may not have been the exact style of sequel many of us wanted, but nonetheless it managed to provide an entertaining action-based battle system to a beautiful hand-drawn world filled with interesting characters, filling a much needed void in 2000's gaming lineup.

Andrew Vestal

  1. Vagrant Story
    • In 2000, the late Jack Kroll wrote a famous editorial for Newsweek claiming that videogames were not a valid artistic medium. If I could only choose one game to show Jack Kroll -- or anyone else who didn't believe in the potential and power of videogames -- it would undoubtedly be Vagrant Story. The story is emotional and complex, making up in character development and layered narrative what it lacks in empty religious symbolism. The localization is mind-bogglingly literate, improving the pedestrian Japanese text with a rich and textured script soaked with Middle English flavor. The character design is fresh and exciting -- the city of Lea Monde, the game's primary environment, is a character itself. The game's only flaw is its overly complex gameplay -- though "overly complex" is far from "bad," and gamers who stuck with the equipment creation systems were richly rewarded. Drawing inspiration from the cinematic, musical, and literary realms -- and inspired itself in its varied gameplay -- Vagrant Story is more than just a great game, or even a masterpiece. It is art.
  2. Skies of Arcadia
    • The characters and story are strictly By The Book -- but so what? The book has rarely been executed so well, and what Skies lacks in narrative creativity it counterbalances with creativity of design. Floating continents, giant airships, and high adventure have never been done quite like this, and the steady art direction and (most importantly) environment design is more than enough to carry the title. Adventure and exploration are the keywords for Skies' appeal. Not since I played the original Final Fantasy IV at the age of 12 have I felt so many moments of unadulterated explorative joy while playing an RPG; each new environment, each new part of the game's overall world, brings with it a rare and impossible-to-describe delight of seeing something new, amazing, and wonderful. A large part of this pleasure comes from the game's unparalleled environments. The dungeon and town designs are more akin to the rich environments of an action RPG than the endless branching hallways most RPG fans have acceptted as the status quo. The power of the Dreamcast makes this the first 3D RPG to deliver on the promise made by games like Vagrant Story, Grandia, and the N64 Zelda titles. Skies is not an epic soap opera of shifting alliances, shocking plot twists, and romantic imbroglios. It is a Grand Adventure -- and one that raises the bar for how enjoyable an RPG can be.
  3. Chrono Cross
    • Disclaimer: despite what might say to the contrary, I do not believe Chrono Cross is a "perfect" game. However, I do believe that at the time I reviewed it it set the high-water mark for every facet of a traditional RPG on the PlayStation -- and remains the system's best traditional RPG experience to this day.

      First things first: yes, the narrative suffers a meltdown of Chernobyl-like proportions in the final hours. But you played it anyways, didn't you? And with scenes like the Big Twist at the top of Fort Dragonia and the revelations at the center of the Dead Sea, the game has its strong points before the walls come crumbling down. And moving away from the story ... the game has the best graphics on the PlayStation, period -- both in terms of creativity of design and of actual execution. The music is one of the best soundtracks ever composed for an RPG, combining themes from Chrono Trigger and Radical Dreamers with entirely new material. The battle system is remarkably balanced, flexible, user-friendly, and just plain fun. NO RANDOM ENCOUNTERS. Over forty characters, each with a unique dialect, background, and own subquest. A localization as impressive as Vagrant Story's, if for entirely different reasons.Multiple endings and a New Game+ mode that doesn't just increase your characters' power but modifies the gameplay to encourage more playthroughs. So the end is just "really, really good" -- the beginning and middle are nearly flawless. Play this.

Feature by Fritz Fraundorf, GIA.
Special Ops
Check out our other features.
Catch up on older features.