For such a small part of a game's plot, usually taking half an hour at most of a story that took 40+ hours to tell, an ending can have an enormous effect on the impression the gamer takes from an RPG. A game can be just fine up until its final moments, but if its ending disappoints you, you're likely going to remember that part most prominently. Hell, it happened to me with Valkyrie Profile 2--most of the game's okay (I wouldn't say good, but certainly okay), but the finale was so monumentally awful that I hate the game and wish it had never been made.* Likewise, a spectacular ending can make one remember a game far better than it would have been. Again, going on personal experience, this was the case for me with Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3. Not to say that I wouldn't have thought it was a great game anyway, but a lot of its main plot was, to me, considerably less interesting and gripping than the Social Link side quests. So the ending, which brought the events of the main quest and those of whichever side quests you completed together to the same, incredibly touching conclusion, really made it a better game overall to me.
What makes an RPG ending great? It's nothing I can really define, but I'd have to say that major factors include how strongly it touches you emotionally (be that emotion jubilant or sorrowful), how well it concludes the game's events (it doesn't have to tie every loose end, and can leave a few possible future problems around in case there's a sequel or something, but it better damn well at least ADDRESS the major parts of the story that are meant to be resolved), and how effectively it shows you the way things go for everyone (not everyone has to become king of a nation/world, but they ought to have SOME kind of life beyond taking up space in the Active Party). Basically, it should speak to you (as the rest of the game should), and there should be conclusion, but not complete finality (the game's events are done with satisfactorily, but life is shown as going on)--the promise of more is good, in moderation.
So, which endings are the best? To me, they're the ones below. And, again, I must emphasize that, while most of my rants have some spoilers one way or another, this one has MAJOR ones. I mean, there aren't many greater spoilers than giving away endings. Seriously, if you don't know the game mentioned and feel that there is any possibility that you'll ever play it, don't read the description.
Endings listed are the Good or Best endings available in each game, unless otherwise noted.
5. Mass Effect 1 (Paragon Ending)
While ME1's Renegade ending is alright, for what it's going for, the Paragon ending is just really the perfect conclusion to this epic sci-fi RPG. After an incredible space battle between the Geth and Sovereign, and the fleets of the Citadel and Earth, the galaxy is saved, and humanity recognized for its great contribution to all the galaxy's races with a seat on the council that rules over them all--a momentous responsibility and privilege, that only 3 other species share. Yet there's always the possibility that Sovereign's kind will come again, and with the assurance that humanity has a future with the other peoples of the Milky Way, the protagonist leaves to continue defending all. This ending's great--it gives you a strong sense of accomplishment, with the promise of more to come amid the praise and fanfare, all coming after a struggle that was shown to be truly epic. Sci-fi stories are rather given to this sort of ending, and Mass Effect 1 exemplifies its genre.
4. Final Fantasy 10
A real tear-jerker, this one. After a journey of self-discovery that led to true love, a revelation of truth about the world's society and history, and a chance to bring about a new age of security for a world living in never-ending terror and preparation for demise, Yuna watches helplessly, in heart-rending sorrow, as her beloved Tidus fades away, having sacrificed himself for a world he barely knew so that she could live in it happily. He leaves her to join his father Jecht and friend Auron in the afterlife, a hopeful dream who bettered himself, Yuna, and so many others. And afterward, she speaks to the world, a new world, to tell them that a new day has finally come, and remembers the lessons and sacrifices of the past that brought them to this point. It's absolutely beautiful, and is filled with promise for the future.** It makes you happy, sad, and content all at once--a mark of a great ending.
3. Shadow Hearts 2 (Yuri Dies Ending)
Shadow Hearts 2, like FF10, goes for an ending that's satisfying, rewarding, happy for most of the characters involved, and so goddamn emotional that you'll want to put your controller down so it doesn't short out from all the tears falling on it. Alright, that's a slight exaggeration, but it's nonetheless extremely touching. After a long journey across half the globe to protect the world that his dear Alice loved, always in a race against time with a curse that devours his memories, Yuri feels that his business is truly finished--his enemies are vanquished, his friends are being transported through space and time to where they belong, and the world is safe. After a last, hurried but heartfelt goodbye to his closest companion Karin, Yuri declines to let himself be transported anywhere--without Alice, there IS nowhere he belongs. Instead, he stays at the crumbling site of his last battle, and lets himself die, choosing death over a life without the memories that define him and hold the only happiness and contentment he's ever known. Finally, he'll be with Alice. It's tragically romantic to an incredible degree, while still leaving you satisfied that the world is safe and sound and the people who saved it have gotten what they deserved and wanted--even poor, one-sided-lovesick Karin, in a twist that I think not a single damn person in the entire world could have foreseen, is provided the opportunity for love, which she wanted, if not under the circumstances she had thought. And then, at the end...yes, we do get a happy ending, for we see that, through some divine time-shifting providence, Yuri is brought back to the beginning of the adventure where he met Alice, and can do it all again and be with her.*** This ending's one for the books. Or at least for this list.
2. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 FES
You know, if you asked me whether I thought that killing the protagonist off in the ending of a game made the ending better or worse in general, I would instinctively say worse. In most cases, I'd imagine that it'd be superfluous, done mostly for shock value, and would lessen the satisfaction you feel from the game as a whole, and leave a bad taste in your mouth. And I'm not entirely wrong, persay--Valkyrie Profile 2 has Alicia (along with most of the good members of the cast) die in the end, and I hate that ending so damn much. And Fallout 3's ending before the Broken Steel add-on drove me crazy, though admittedly more for its stupid circumstances.
Still, the odd fact is that out of the 5 endings I think are the best of all RPGs, 3 of them involve the main character dying. But as saddening as they are, their beauty and quality as conclusions is nearly unsurpassed. SMTP3FES exemplifies just how excellent an ending you can create while NOT trying to make your audience happy. After a year of making personal connections with people and becoming a cherished friend to so many, developing an incredibly strong bond with each one and greatly influencing each one's life for the better, the consequences of the final battle finally begin to fully catch up with protagonist Minato. Nearly overtaken by an exhaustion that grows with the hour, Minato uses his last day of school to speak to each of the people who he formed a truly lasting and meaningful relationship with. Each person whose life he touched forever is there to thank him, to make known just how important he is to them, and to look forward to seeing him again. On a grand scale AND a personal level, Minato has done everything for them. And then, on the day of graduation, after lingering long enough to fulfill his promise to his allies to see them again on that day, he finally succumbs to his affliction, and falls asleep with his head resting on the lap of she who loves him most, never to awaken again. Heartrending, but absolutely beautiful. Satisfying, yet so full of regret. I usually like my endings to make me feel content, but for one made so well as this, I don't mind something different.
1. Chrono Trigger (Unfed Cat Ending)
Actually, the Fed Cat ending's great, too, but I think this version's just a bit better, for its promise of continuing excitement.
This ending is basically the perfect happy ending. I don't think I can think of an ending to anything, RPG or otherwise, that has a more satisfactory conclusion. It wraps the adventure up with celebration, resolution of personal conflicts, and tearful, yet happy farewells as each party member goes their separate way. Yet at the same time, it gives you the promise that the companions who are now friends will have more adventures, even if they're such small ones as searching for a temporally-misplaced homemaker and feline. Finally, the credits roll to a scene of protagonist Crono and his friends flying over a peaceful, safe world, passing by the places where their companions live and seeing that each is doing well, after which the saved world is shown sitting peacefully in space, and a star rolls by to denote The End. It's so simple, yet it delivers satisfaction and a sense of peaceful accomplishment so perfectly.
Honorable Mention: Mass Effect 3 (Fan-Created MEHEM Ending)
It's no secret that Mass Effect 3 has one of the worst endings ever created for a game, or anything else, for that matter. Every part of it is a detestable slap in the face to the players, to the characters, and to the art and integrity of the series as a whole.
The Mass Effect Happy Ending Mod changes that. Now, I think it's pretty obvious, having gone through this list, that I understand a good ending doesn't have to be "happy." As I noted, the majority of the endings I've put on this list involve the hero of the game dying heroically. I didn't need an ending that was happy for ME3, as many of the brainwashed Bioware yes-fans claim of those who disliked ME3's ending--I just need one that satisfies, that ends this great trilogy with the epic power it deserves and delivers an experience in tune with the greatness that permeates Mass Effect. To put it simply, Mass Effect needs an ending that is Mass Effect. Apparently that's too difficult to fathom for the pretentious, self-important asses at Bioware, so 1 fan, going by MrFob, stepped forward and made, with a little help from the ME fan community, a mod for ME3 that transforms its ending from a colossal failure into a grand, sensational finale to a true sci-fi classic. It's not perfectly streamlined, but it's damned good; there are times when the entirely fan-created sequences are indistinguishable from the "real" game content...and for an ending that so properly concludes Mass Effect, I'd take a hell of a lot worse, to be sure. I plan to do a rant on MEHEM at some point, so I'm gonna cut this off here, but in parting, I happily declare that I celebrate this modded ending for ME3 as the true finale to Shepard's tale, and I recommend--hell, I plead to anyone who plays and enjoys Mass Effect to experience the series with this as its ending.
* Even a modestly okay game can deserve to never have been made, folks, if its ending completely erases a previous, much better game's events from ever happening. Great idea, SquareEnix, retcon one of the most famous and desired RPGs of all time out of existence. I'm sure no one will have a problem with THAT.
** Okay, maybe the future that actually DOES come about is a horrible mess of incompetent writing wrapped in shallow marketing ploys, but you can't hold that against FF10's ending.
*** And he can do things right this time, perhaps--the good ending of Shadow Hearts 1 had her live, so we can assume that the actual chronology of the games is Shadow Hearts 1 occurs with the Bad Ending (Alice dies), Shadow Hearts 2 occurs with the Good Ending (Yuri dies and goes back to Shadow Hearts 1's beginning), Shadow Hearts 1 occurs with Yuri's better understanding of himself and its events and Alice lives in the Good Ending.